Federal immigration officials acknowledged Friday that they increased the number of charter flights this year carrying immigrant detainees to Massachusetts.
The flights, which started in April to Hanscom Field and Logan Airport, have been shrouded in secrecy. Federal and state officials have portrayed the flights as routine, but others say the flights seemed unusual in a state far from the Southern border.
Daniel Modricker, spokesman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said ICE has chartered seven flights to Massachusetts since April, an increase from past months, but he would not provide statistics on past flights or say how many detainees were on board.
Four of the flights contained immigrants who had recently crossed the border, he said; they were arrested in Texas and were being transferred to detention centers in New England. The three remaining flights stopped in Massachusetts to collect detainees to deport them.
Modricker said ICE flew the detainees to Massachusetts because they needed room in detention centers on the Southern border, where thousands of immigrant children and some adults largely from Central America, have crossed in recent months. He said all detainees on the planes were adults, not unaccompanied children or families.
"The recent influx of crossings along the southwest border requires a large-scale nationwide response," Modricker said in a statement Friday. "While New England is geographically removed from the immediate area of concern, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Boston has provided support when and where it makes logistical sense."
Until now, federal and state officials have suggested the flights were routine. In June, ICE said the transfer of detainees from one part of the country to another is "part of the normal removal process."
Also in June, Andrea J. Cabral, state secretary of public safety and security, said in a letter to House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. that the flights were "routine transports of detainees."
Cabral's office did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Modricker said that the majority of detainees on the flights have since been deported and that almost all the rest are in detention facilities across New England. ICE does not have detention centers in this region and typically pays local jails about $100 per immigrant per day to house the detainees. It is unclear how many have been released.
Jones, a Republican from North Reading, said ICE officials should be more forthcoming about the number of past flights, whether more flights are coming in, and what is happening to all the detainees on board. "I think they've tried to portray it as routine, but I think it's hard to believe that," Jones said Friday. "It's got to be costing taxpayers somewhere some money."
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said he had been unaware of the flights and that he has not seen an increase in the number of immigrant detainees in his county jail. To the contrary, he said, the jail is currently housing only 136 detainees; usually they have about 220. Hodgson, who said he is going to the Texas border with other sheriffs next week to address the immigration influx, blasted the Obama administration and Congress for politicizing the issue and often refusing to allow federal immigration officials to disclose basic information to the public, such as details about the flights to Massachusetts.
"They're trying to protect the political flank and make sure that they dance as much as they can so that people can't find out," Hodgson said. "That's the reality that we're dealing with. It's sad. It's really sad. We can't deal with problems unless people honestly put them out there."