Passengers on a domestic Delta Air Lines from San Francisco to New York were met by a pair of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents who were searching for an undocumented immigrant under a deportation order. The agents asked passengers to show their IDs before being allowed to disembark.
The agency confirmed reports that the agents requested to see identification from passengers on Delta Flight 1583 while they were disembarking at John F Kennedy Airport at around 8pm EST/1am GMT on Wednesday (22 February). CBP said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had requested the search but the individual had not been on the flight.
A spokesman for the agency said the undocumented individual was issued a deportation order after several criminal convictions for domestic assault, driving while impaired and violating a protective order, the Washington Post reported.
A VICE News staffer, Anne Garrett, was on the flight and documented the situation on social media, the news site reported. "My flight from SFO to JFK. We were told we couldn't disembark without showing our 'documents'," she tweeted along with a photo the two agents checking identification.
Garrett said that shortly after the plane landed, a member of the flight crew told passengers they would have to show their "documents" to CBP officers in order to be allowed to leave the aircraft. After a brief confusion over which documents passengers would need to show, a flight crew member clarified that passengers would need to show either their passport or other form of government-issued identification.
Many on social media speculated that the move could be linked to President Donald Trump's new aggressive policies on immigration.
Jordan Wells, a staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the Washington Post that law enforcement officials sometimes board planes to detain a suspect or fugitive, but it is not usual for officers to wait outside a plane and ask passengers for identification as they deplane.
"They'll occasionally pull someone off of a flight, or officers will come and make an arrest," Wells said. "It's a much more surgical thing than setting up a dragnet. That's what is so alarming about the way that this played out."
Garret said that she offered the officers her driver's license and asked for more information but was not given any. "I said, 'Why do you need to see this?' He just took it out of my hand," Garrett said. "It's a tough situation to be in because everybody wants to get off the flight. You don't want to be the one holding up the line."
A Delta spokesperson told VICE News that the airline had reached out to CBP "to get a sense of why their presence was needed" but did not give more information about the situation.
The Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration issued new guidelines to ICE and CBP to empower agents to target, detain and deport any of the undocumented immigrants living in the US, whether they have past criminal convictions or not. These guidelines shift significantly from the Obama administration, which focused on deporting undocumented immigrations with prior criminal convictions.