Amazon’s dogged quest to dominate air logistics has allegedly led the company to stand side by side with a questionable firm instrumental to U.S. deportation efforts.
According to a report in the Intercept, Amazon has become a part-owner in an air cargo holding company whose subsidiaries include a passenger charter firm responsible for carrying out deportation flights for the Department of Homeland Security as part of its “ICE Air,” program. Activists claim those flights are ripe with abuse.
That subsidiary, called Omni Air International, reportedly charges DHS hefty fees to carry out deportation flights deemed “high risk,” according to contract documents viewed by the Intercept. The DHS’ definition of high risk, however, is incredibly broad and applies to seemingly banal factors like an “uncommon or long-distance destination.”
Regardless of the cause, once passengers are deemed high risk they are allegedly subjected to harsher, sometimes violent treatment. Specifically, the report references a 2017 deportation case allegedly involving Omni Air where deportees on route to Somalia were beaten and restrained in straight jackets among other gut-wrenching details. Overall, the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights has documented 99 complaints filed to the DHS between 2007 and 2018 related to ICE Air deportations flights.
Amazon reportedly purchased a 19.5% stake in Air Transport Services Group, the cargo holding company, for around $131 million last year, though a roadmap exists for the e-commerce giant to own as much as 39.9% of ATSG. These inherent tides to Ice Air’s program put Amazon in direct contradiction with its own stated position on immigration. On its website, Amazon claims it “strongly supports the rights of immigrants and immigration reform,” which it says are imperative for the U.S. to remain competitive.
“Not only is immigration crucial for the competitiveness of the U.S., it is also crucial for our customers,” Amazon said in a separate blog post. “By welcoming the best and the brightest talent from around the world and having hundreds of thousands of employees in the U.S. from all different backgrounds, Amazon is able to more effectively create and innovate on our customers’ behalf.”
In a statement sent to Gizmodo, ATSG confirmed Omni Air International does provide services to ICE and transports troops for the U.S. military.
“In these cases, Omni only provides the aircraft and crew with transported passengers supervised by government officials to ensure the safety of everyone involved including the Omni crew,” ATSG said in its statement. “Although not managing the passenger environment, Omni would not tolerate the abuse of any passenger aboard the aircraft.”
This isn’t the first time Amazon has found itself in the hot seat over its close connections with ICE. A 2018 report conducted by nonprofits Mijente, Immigrant Defense Project, NIPNLG, and Empower LLC determined Amazon Web Services and Palantir were instrumental in providing the agency with data storage and management. AWS acted as the “key contractor” responsible for moving the agency’s estimated $6.8 billion IT portfolio to the cloud and ultimately maintaining a DHS database of immigration case management systems and swaths of biometric data consisting of at least 230 million unique identities.
“The government’s move towards cloud services has been the result of the “cloud industrial complex”—a public-private partnership among industry lobbyists, tech executives, key federal legislators, and tech executives-turned-government officials,” the report reads.
That report draws a throughline between the added data capabilities afforded to the agency via Amazon’s services and an uptick in deportations. Those findings also happened to come during a time of immense DHS scrutiny over enforcement of then-President Trump’s ruthless so-called “zero tolerance” immigration policies that led to a barrage of photos depicting groups of young children waiting in large metal cages. Revelations of Amazon’s close ties with ICE led to protests in New York where demonstrators demanded the company cut ties with the agency.
Prior to that, Amazon faced backlash and more employee protests over its decision to sell its “Rekognition” facial recognition to the DHS and other law enforcement agencies. Amazon finally caved to pressure nearly two years after the controversy began and issued a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition back in 2020, which it has since extended indefinitely.
It’s possible Amazon’s ties to the ICE Air deportation tactics could elicit a similar response in the coming days and weeks. Activists speaking with The Intercept have already demanded Amazon divest from Omni Air International in the wake of the findings.
“First, I want Amazon to recognize its complicity, by virtue of its connection to Omni, in the commission of egregious human rights violations,” immigration writer and activist Sarah Towle told The Intercept. “Second, Amazon should sever Omni’s relationship with ICE.”
Update 8:50 a.m. ET: We’ve added a statement from Air Transport Services Group.