As Amazon’s dominance of global e-commerce has grown, so has its vast fleet of vehicles shuttling packages from warehouse to doorstep around the world. To further expand its ballooning logistics empire, the company quietly became a partial owner of Air Transport Services Group Inc., a power player in the air cargo industry that has helped the United States forcibly deport thousands of migrants and, its passengers allege, at times subjected them to horrific abuse en route.
On March 9, 2021, following five years of using the service for chartered cargo flights, Amazon purchased 19.5 percent of ATSG for $131 million and currently reserves options that would let it expand that stake to 40 percent. Among ATSG’s various aviation subsidiaries is Omni Air International, a passenger charter firm that moves humans on behalf of the federal government. Its two most prominent federal customers are the Department of Defense, which uses the firm for troop transports, and the Department of Homeland Security, which has paid the company reportedly exorbitant fees over the years in order to execute so-called special high-risk charter flights for its “ICE Air” deportation machine. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deals with Omni through an intermediary, Classic Air Charter Inc., a flight logistics firm whose parent company previously helped transport CIA prisoners to black sites to be tortured.
Homeland Security defines these “high-risk” flights as any “scheduled to repatriate individuals who cannot be removed via commercial airlines to locations worldwide, or because of other security concerns or risk factors.” According to ICE Air contract documents reviewed by The Intercept, the definition of “high risk” is so broad as to include virtually anyone, “including, but not limited to, the following: uncommon or long-distance destination, failure to comply with removal proceeding, high profile removal, etc.” The notion that these deportees in some way pose a grave danger has created a pretext, agency critics allege, to beat, demean, and terrify them in the name of homeland security.
An Amazon spokesperson acknowledged The Intercept’s request for comment on these allegations but did not provide any response. ATSG, Omni, and ICE did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
ICE Air’s particular reputation for brutality is well earned and thoroughly catalogued. In 2019, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights published a string of reports on the flights, documenting a “long series of indignities and illegalities” stretching back decades. The deportation flight abuse crisis is attributed directly to the opacity of firms like Omni: “Over the past decade, the institutional infrastructure behind these flights has shifted from a government operation run by the US Marshals Service on government planes, to a sprawling, semi-secret network of flights on privately-owned aircraft.”
One of the more infamous examples is a notoriously botched 2017 removal flight to Somalia, which the center believes was operated by Omni, on which deportees alleged “physical beatings, the use of straitjackets, verbal abuse and threats, and the denial of access to restrooms, which forced passengers to soil themselves in their seats.” Though the Somalia flight was perhaps the highest-profile instance of ICE Air abuse, the Center for Human Rights concluded that “given the lack of effective oversight of ICE Air, it is likely that many other abuses may go unreported. … Among the former deportees we interviewed, accounts of more routine ill-treatment were common, including the use of racist epithets and insults, and rough physical treatment upon boarding.”
Even without specific allegations of abuse, the flights come with an inherent brutality for deportees, who remain bound and shackled for the entirety of an international flight, at times upward of 30 hours or more with stopovers. Nearly 100 formal allegations of abuse and mistreatment aboard ICE Air flights were filed to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties between 2007 and 2018, including a 2012 incident in which an ICE detainee “miscarried her triplets” aboard a removal flight to El Salvador.
The determination that the human cargo in question presents a “security concern” such that they warrant a “high-risk” deportation flight can result in even harsher treatment than “regular” removal flights, according to deportation watchers. Despite ICE Air’s efforts to operate in near-total secrecy, Sarah Towle, an author, immigrant advocate, and researcher based in London, has tirelessly tracked these flights and given a voice to their passengers, conducting dozens of interviews with deportees since 2020 to gain a rare glimpse into their treatment.
Among other alleged horrors, Towle says one particular in-flight brutality motivates her to continue documenting deportee abuse and push Amazon to divest from ATSG and its ICE-affiliated subsidiary: the use of the WRAP. Sold to police departments across the United States and part of ICE’s “authorized restraint devices,” the WRAP incapacitates individuals by binding their legs together and their arms behind their back in a semi-seated position using a mummy-like set of harnesses, locks, and chains. The device’s Diablo, California-based manufacturer, Safe Restraints Inc., says it was “invented by law enforcement and medical professionals to improve the method of safely restraining an individual” and provides a means of immobilizing detainees with “respect” and “humane care,” according to training materials. This training document adds that there is no time limit that a person can be kept in a WRAP, nor does it rule out its use on pregnant detainees.
An investigation by Capital & Main published February 3 found that no “testing requirements, safety guidelines or certifications exist in the United States for full body restraint systems like the WRAP” and “identified 10 lawsuits brought by families of people who died in police custody during incidents involving the WRAP since 2000,” though these deaths were not definitively attributed to the device’s use. Safe Restraints’s CEO told Capital & Main that the company “operate[s] under the highest standards that we believe are necessary to help people stay alive” and that “we have an incredibly high safety record,” but cited no evidence.
Though the WRAP is marketed as a safety device meant to protect those stuffed into it, people subjected to the restraint on ICE flights, including those operated by Omni, say it creates an agonizing ordeal amounting to torture. A complaint filed last year to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties by a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups and the Texas A&M University School of Law details the harrowing experience of three migrants deported via Omni Air, alleging that ICE “is using The WRAP in a manner that constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in violation of the Convention Against Torture.” The complaint is based largely on interviews with the deportees conducted by Towle. One man recounted that after being thrown to the ground and shot with rubber bullets, he was placed in a WRAP and loaded onto an Omni flight, where his body remained locked at a 40-degree angle for about nine hours. “It was so painful,” he said. “The position was very stressful on my body, my muscles were shot with pain the entire bus ride and flight back to Cameroon.”
Two other men deported to Cameroon and interviewed by Towle recalled a similar experience on an Omni flight: “My lungs were compressed, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sit up. I was immobilized,” said one. “My body was in so much stress. I shouted, ‘You’re killing me!’ I truly felt I was meeting my death in that moment. Six officers, three on each side, picked me up and carried me onto the plane. They plopped me down, like a load of wood, across a center row of seats.” A third man included in the complaint told Towle that he was placed in a WRAP and left on the tarmac as other prisoners were loaded onto a flight transferring them to their Omni-run deportation. “They attached a cord from a buckle at my chest to a buckle at my feet and they pulled my upper body down so my face was in my knees. I could not breathe well. I was completely immobilized.” He added, “The day I was put in The WRAP by ICE, I wanted to die. I have never felt such horrible pain. It was torture.”
“I have never felt such horrible pain. It was torture.”
A February 10 report by Human Rights Watch further detailed allegations of brutalization on the Omni flights to Cameroon. One Cameroonian deportee interviewed by Human Rights Watch recounted his mistreatment on the flight: “[ICE] put me in a Wrap [or similar restraint] because I was refusing to get in the plane. … [T]hey tie your legs and your hands, each is connected to each and you can’t sit up straight. It’s a form of punishment. Then they put something like a net cap on my face. … I told them God will judge them. The ICE officers told me I should go to hell, that whatever complaint I do, the case will go nowhere, that they can do whatever they want.”
Four months after these men were deported to Cameroon aboard Omni Air International, Amazon purchased a 19.5 percent stake in its parent company, ATSG, for $131 million. Amazon has leased Boeing 767 cargo aircraft from ATSG since 2015, but in 2016 the two companies formed a long-term partnership that allows Amazon to expand its ownership stake to 40 percent in the future and to appoint a member to ATSG’s board, Bloomberg reported at the time. In a company blog post celebrating the launch of its Amazon Prime-liveried cargo fleet in 2016, operated in part by ATSG, Amazon executive Dave Clark wrote, “Adding capacity for Prime members by developing a dedicated air cargo network ensures there is enough available capacity to provide customers with great selection, low prices and incredible shipping speeds for years to come.” According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Amazon was ATSG’s largest customer as of September, accounting for 35 percent of the company’s revenues.
“A disproportionate amount of the abuses that we have seen are on [Omni] flights to African countries of origin. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a reflection of inherent anti-Blackness or racism.”
Longtime ICE Air observers say that Omni flights are known for a degree of inhumanity exceeding its deportation charter rivals, even without the use of a WRAP. Angelina Godoy, director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, has spent years collecting Homeland Security materials documenting deportation flights and cataloguing allegations of abuse. “The reporting of abuses on Omni flights is significantly worse,” Godoy told The Intercept in an interview, citing everything from allegations of physical violence to denied access to bathrooms on 18-hour flights.
Godoy points to two particularly horrific publicly reported ICE Air flights that her team’s research indicates were conducted by Omni: The notoriously botched 2017 Somalia mission and a 2016 charter in which deportees described being tased and treated like “sacks of vegetables” in WRAP restraints. “Officers took cellphone videos of the prisoners as they lay on the ground, they said, then grabbed the bags by the handles and heaved them onto the plane, some landing with a thud,” according to a Los Angeles Times report. (An ICE spokesperson told the Times that the WRAP had been used because deportees refused to comply with orders.) “A disproportionate amount of the abuses that we have seen are on [Omni] flights to African countries of origin,” Godoy added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a reflection of inherent anti-Blackness or racism. I wonder what makes this a special high-risk charter other than the color of the skin of the people that are on the plane.”
A report published by Amnesty International in December condemned the Omni-enabled mass deportations, noting, “Many expelled Haitians have disembarked US deportation flights sick, handcuffed, hungry, traumatized, and disoriented only to find themselves in a ‘humanitarian nightmare’” back in Haiti. The Biden administration’s use of Title 42, a Trump-era policy that deported asylum-seeking migrants on dubious coronavirus-related public health grounds, drew particular criticism. In October, State Department lawyer Harold Koh resigned following the Haitian deportation flights, which he slammed as “illegal” and “inhumane.” Koh’s letter accused ICE of committing “refoulement,” or deporting individuals to a country knowing that they fear persecution and harm there, in violation of international law, a charge echoed by groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the University of Washington Center for Human Rights.
Though it pales in comparison to Amazon’s global e-commerce footprint, Omni’s deportation flights are highly lucrative: In 2019, Quartz published an ICE document justifying the immense cost of operating ICE Air, far beyond market rates, explaining that “Many carriers are discouraged by the potential of public backlash or negative media attention” associated with deportation flights, and “as a result, our carrier selection pool has been reduced to a single operator, Omni.” The document noted that ICE was paying Omni roughly double the expected rate for flights: A single deportation charter on November 18, 2019, “cost US taxpayers a total of $1.8 million—roughly $280,000 more than the original order price,” Quartz reported. In its most recent earnings call, ATSG reported a record $466 million quarterly revenue and told investors that “Omni Air was a notable contributor to those gains.”
Despite their immense cost, private deportation flights give ICE the benefit of discretion. A 2020 Miami Herald report on private deportation flights noted that charter companies “can arrange flights for ICE that keep a low profile and avoid interference from local law enforcement, in part by departing from remote airfields.” According to the 2019 University of Washington Center for Human Rights reports on ICE Air, “deportation flights operated by Omni Air International do not begin with the RPN prefix” — the Federal Aviation Administration call sign typically used to identify ICE Air flights — “and are therefore more readily confused with other private charter flights operated by the same company.”
Godoy says her research into ICE Air is further thwarted by institutional secrecy at the Department of Homeland Security, which has increasingly redacted public records requests that would provide transparency about the flights and abuse allegations therein. “The degree of redactions is extreme,” Godoy said via email, explaining that many of the documents recently turned over to her team at the University of Washington through Freedom of Information Act requests have been almost entirely redacted. “These documents only serve to illustrate the secrecy surrounding these flights, [some] of which cost taxpayers around $1 million.”
“These documents only serve to illustrate the secrecy surrounding these flights, [some] of which cost taxpayers around $1 million.”
Omni’s deportation operations are masked further by the fact that the company uses the exact same planes to conduct both ICE Air flights and luxury charters. Last June, the company debuted “Omni Class,” a private service offering clients “180° of 360 Luxury” with “an unparalleled cocoon of passenger comfort and luxury that transforms into a 180-degree full flat bed at the touch of a button.” A marketing video for Omni Class shows guests enjoying flutes of champagne and grilled steaks from their “stand-alone throne seats that provide the ultimate in luxury and privacy.” A promotional brochure for Omni Class reveals that one of the aircrafts used for these pleasure cruises carries the tail number N378AX, the same plane Omni used to execute a string of deportation flights in December, according to flight data provided by Cartwright. Omni did not comment on the practice of using the same aircraft for both deportations and luxury travel flights.
Amazon’s ownership of an airline implicated in the torture of immigrants would appear to be at odds with its solidly pro-immigrant public rhetoric. Last June, noting that “Immigrant Heritage Month provides an opportunity to honor the contributions of immigrants and celebrate the powerful ways that diversity enriches America’s culture, common identity, and economy,” Amazon’s corporate blog published a post titled “Renewing our commitment to immigrant rights and immigration reform,” emphasizing that the company continued to contemplate “how we can more effectively use our voice to advocate for the rights of immigrants.” The company has also published numerous written commitments to generalized notions of “human rights,” including within its supply chain and logistics network — which includes, of course, shipping providers like ATSG. “We commit to embedding respect for human rights throughout our business,” according to the Amazon Global Human Rights Principles. “We strive to ensure the products and services we provide are produced in a way that respects internationally recognized human rights,” reads another corporate document. The deliberate infliction of painful and degrading “stress positions” like those described by deportees placed in WRAPs has been described as a form of torture by the United Nations. Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that has advocated against the use of “stress positions” and criticized ICE’s expansive deportation powers, counts Amazon Senior Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs Jay Carney among the most prominent members of its board of directors. Human Rights First did not respond to a request for comment.
Amazon’s partial ownership of Omni is just one of many profitable entanglements the company has with the American deportation apparatus. Palantir’s ICM software, which The Intercept previously reported is used by Homeland Security to track and deport immigrants en masse, has been running on servers leased from Amazon’s sprawling cloud computing business, and in 2018 the Daily Beast reported that Amazon had pitched its now-shelved facial recognition technology to ICE. Amazon’s willingness to build computer infrastructure integral to ICE operations has spurred waves of protests, both in the advocacy community and among its own employees.
Over the past two years, Towle, Cartwright, and their colleagues at Witness at the Border and other migrant advocacy groups have built a sophisticated grassroots operation that tracks deportation flights meant to evade the public eye, documents alleged abuses, and organizes against the deportation system. As ICE goes to great lengths to obscure its deportations from the public, the loose confederation of activists, researchers, and academics essentially reverse-engineer the flight plans, an effort they coordinate via a WhatsApp group. “Perhaps because of Omni’s DOD connection, it masks its tail numbers, which isn’t strictly illegal. But it means that Tom [Cartwright] can only ‘see’ Omni planes once they are in the air,” Towle wrote in an email. “To anticipate when a new flight might be coming, he relied on clues provided by the detainees themselves, passed to the group chat by their advocates and attorneys.” Towle explained that the Omni watchers look for tell-tale signs of an impending deportation, like a detainee being abruptly summoned for Covid-19 testing, having their commissary account locked, or being transferred to a migrant detention facility filled with fellow nationals. Between lawyers and activists on the ground and Cartwright watching the skies, the group has become adept at detecting unannounced deportation flights as they’re happening.
Towle says that learning of the WRAP’s use on deportees and hearing of its debilitating and demeaning effect firsthand has galvanized her work. “In the WhatsApp chat, I began to hear their advocates and attorneys use the same language. … Reports from the deported individuals included people being ‘stuffed into a sack,’ ‘bagged,’ ‘bagged and tied,’ or “tortilla’d.’” Armed with ample evidence of abuses gleaned from over 50 detainee interviews, Towle and her fellow activists and observers say their next step is pushing Amazon to cease, or at least acknowledge, its role in keeping ICE Air’s machine humming along. “First, I want Amazon to recognize its complicity, by virtue of its connection to Omni, in the commission of egregious human rights violations,” Towle told The Intercept. “Second, Amazon should sever Omni’s relationship with ICE,” a decision, however unlikely, that Towle hopes would send a message to other companies cashing in on mass deportations. It is, she points out, a small drop in the company’s very large bucket: “Amazon can cut ICE loose and never miss a cent.”
Correction: February 17, 2022
A previous version of this story misstated the plane a DHS CRCL complainant was placed on: It was connecting to an Omni flight, not itself an Omni flight.