American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. asked the U.S. government not to fly immigrant children separated from their families on their aircraft as President Donald Trump said he was abandoning his “zero tolerance” border-enforcement policy.
In joining critics of the U.S. detention of the youngsters, the carriers highlighted a central mystery in the political and human-rights crisis: Federal officials aren’t saying how the children are being ferried from near the U.S.-Mexico border to a network of facilities in 17 states.
“Based on our serious concerns about this policy and how it’s in deep conflict with our company’s values, we have contacted federal officials to inform them that they should not transport immigrant children on United aircraft who have been separated from their parents,” United Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz said in an emailed statement.
A third carrier, Frontier Airlines Inc., said Wednesday that it “prides itself on being a family airline and we will not knowingly allow our flights to be used to transport migrant children away from their families.”
Delta Air Lines Inc. , the second-largest U.S. carrier, didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.
All three airlines said they didn’t actually know if the government was transporting immigrant children on their flights. But the companies’ moral stand prompted a scathing response from Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, who wrote on Twitter that it’s “unfortunate” the airlines “no longer want to partner with the brave men and women of DHS.”
“These airlines clearly do not understand our immigration laws and the long-standing devastating loopholes that have caused the crisis at our southern border,” he said.
The department didn’t immediately respond to an emailed question about how the detained children are transported.
The disagreement Wednesday came as Trump said he’s signing an executive order to prevent children from being separated from their families when the government detains immigrants at the border.
American and United have contracts to transport federal employees, as do most major U.S. airlines. But that doesn’t mean they know who’s being flown on any particular flight, American said in a statement. The “government does not disclose information about the nature of the flights it takes or the passengers who are traveling,” the carrier said.
The role of aviation in the separations also drew in flight attendants, who found themselves in the middle of the dispute. The Association of Flight Attendants-CFA, the largest U.S. attendants union, said it’s asking U.S. airlines for guidance on how to respond if detained children are on a flight.
Among their questions: “whether these children could be on our flights, how we will be notified, what special instructions there may be for care of these children if they are on our flights, and how to respond to passengers asking us questions about the airline’s role, if any, in transporting these children to detention centers away from their parents,” the union said in a statement.
The union also said it “condemns any action to purposefully separate children from their parents.”
The Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families when they’re arrested for illegally crossing the border drew fierce criticism, both domestically and around the world. Pope Francis condemned the family separation policy as “immoral” and “contrary to our Catholic values.” British Prime Minister Theresa May called it “deeply disturbing” and “wrong.”
“We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it,” American said.
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