U.S. agency’s airborne migration sweep at Canadian border nets 124

‘Operation Jagdakommando’ ran to address ‘unprecedented illicit cross-border activity’

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is saying little about an operation earlier this year that used helicopters and a fixed-wing airplane to round up 124 people in the vicinity of the Canada-U.S. border.

That’s despite the fact it publicized the sweep, dubbed “Operation Jagdakommando,” in a July 20 news release that described it as a response to “unprecedented illicit cross-border activity” in the Northern U.S.

The release said personnel from CBP’s air and marine units in Detroit and Washington state also took part in the multi-jurisdictional “surge operation,” which was led by the U.S. Border Patrol.

“During the operation, Plattsburgh Air Unit crews contributed to the apprehension of 124 individuals between April 4 and May 13, 2023,” the release says.

“Aircrews contributed to the apprehension of 212 individuals (from October 2022 through June), marking a significant increase in migrant apprehensions.”

“Jagdakommando” translates roughly as “hunter command” or “manhunt command.” A similar word — jagdkommando — is the name of a special forces unit operated by the Austrian military.

But the agency has refused to elaborate on the operation, its name or any of the 124 people who were apprehended. It will also not say why, such as specify whether they were engaged in drug or weapons trafficking or merely lacked legal status in the U.S.

“All of the information that we have to provide regarding that operation is in the news release,” a CBP spokesperson said in an email nearly three weeks after The Canadian Press first made inquiries.

The operation was launched just 11 days after U.S. President Joe Biden visited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, a meeting that produced a more fortified version of the agreement that governs bilateral asylum claims.

The amendment to the bilateral deal known as the Safe Third Country Agreement extended it along the full length of the land border, closing off popular routes for migrants hoping to claim refugee status in Canada.

But without more clarity, it’s impossible to know exactly why the 124 people were apprehended, said Sharry Aiken, a law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who specializes in immigration issues.

“It’s really problematic to lump in potential asylum seekers within this operation and effectively stigmatize these individuals with a label that suggests they’re illegal and illicit, when in fact, they’re not,” Aiken said.

Safe Third Country agreements are little more than bilateral procedures between two countries that force would-be claimants to seek asylum in the first safe country where they arrive, she added.

“It’s not a procedure that renders anybody who’s making a refugee claim somehow a lawbreaker. They’re not. They have the right to make an asylum claim.”

Migrant rights groups have been complaining for years about the steady erosion of asylum opportunities in the U.S. as the country grapples with the persistent flow of undocumented arrivals at its border with Mexico.

At the same time, it is now standard operating procedure for Republicans on Capitol Hill to assail Democrat immigration policy — particularly after four turbulent years of Donald Trump, and his “build the wall” rhetoric, as president.

Indeed, some congressional Republicans went so far as to form a “Northern Border Security Caucus” earlier this year, seizing on fears that Canada was becoming a popular route for people trying to enter the U.S. illegally.

Caucus co-chair Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) and House GOP Conference chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) cheered the operation in a statement.

“Biden’s border crisis has devastated communities across the nation and turned every town into a border town,” the statement said.

“We rely on the expertise of our CBP and (Air and Marine Operations) agents to keep us safe every day and successfully and fearlessly execute on their vital role in protecting our national security.”

The release notes that the Plattsburgh Air Unit is often involved in “border security operations” along the Canada-U.S. border, as well as federal, state and local investigations and search-and-rescue missions.

In the 12 months of fiscal 2022, Air and Marine Operations resulted in 967 arrests and 134,981 apprehensions of undocumented individuals, it continues, along with copious amounts of drugs, weapons and cash.

Precisely where those seizures occurred is not made clear.

“The story here is really the U.S. government’s clearly intentional conflation of illegal migration with drug trafficking and the weapons trade,” Aiken said.

“What we can really criticize is the fact that the government has released this bulletin in the manner in which it has done, which clearly and intentionally obfuscates the details in relation to the apprehensions.”

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