Lou Barletta tells the story as equal parts mysterious and ominous.
There are “ghost flights” secretly landing at Pennsylvania airports “late at night” full of children, and sometimes adults, who had arrived at the United States border with no documentation about their immigration status.
Barletta’s recent warnings on immigration are a callback to his political start two decades ago as mayor of Hazleton, where his controversial engagement on the issue drew national attention. It could also help him stand out in a crowded Republican field of candidates.
“Where are they taking them?” Barletta asked about the passengers, whom he said arrived from Texas on Christmas Night and New Year’s Eve. “Why the secrecy? Why at night? Are the people vaccinated? Were there background checks done on them?”
Planes, of course, routinely land at night at airports. And Barletta acknowledges that he is “very aware” that at least some of these flights are part of the Unaccompanied Children Program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), using chartered airplanes to transport children to places in the country to place them in the custody of sponsors, relatives, or parents.
The program did the same under Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, while Barletta served on the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security and made immigration a key political issue.
HHS records show more than 6,000 children have been released to sponsors in Pennsylvania from late 2014 to November 2021.
“He should know better, being a former federal representative, and the fact that he continues to contact the governor and attorney general seems to be nothing more than a [public relations] stunt,” said Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for Wolf. “And if he is unaware of the appropriate roles of the state and federal government in regards to immigration, that’s extremely concerning.”
Rementer noted that the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement distributes COVID-19 vaccines to children eligible under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and unaccompanied children exposed to or showing symptoms are quarantined, monitored, and tested for the virus.
Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson for Shapiro, accused Barletta of “using children as props in his latest political stunt after doing nothing to fix our broken immigration system during his eight years in Congress.” Rhoads added that Shapiro “has been clear that federal agencies must be transparent with the public” about how immigrants are treated.
Barletta dismisses that as “a scolding” from the governor and attorney general. But he also said he did not seek any information from federal agencies about the flights before highlighting them in a series of news releases, Fox News appearances, and a video about them since mid-December while also making local media appearances about the issue.
He says his information — grainy nighttime photos said to be shot at airports near Scranton, Allentown, and Harrisburg, and screenshots from Flight Aware, a service that tracks airplane flights — was provided by a network of sources. Barletta declined to identify those sources and said he does not know who some of them are.
While Barletta’s complaints about the issue started last month with children, he soon expanded to include other flights that he said brought adult migrants to Pennsylvania, who were then transported to a former federal prison in Clearfield County now run by a contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These trips involve continuing custody, unlike the unaccompanied children who are placed with sponsors.
“The sources don’t matter,” Barletta said when asked about where he obtains his information. “The pictures don’t lie. The plane details don’t lie. These are actual flights. Nobody’s denying it.”
On this, there is consensus.
HHS, in response to questions from The Inquirer, said it has a legal responsibility to care for unaccompanied children, 17 or younger, from the border, does not make determinations on immigration status, and does not rule on whether a child should remain in this country or be sent to another. The agency places children with approved sponsors while they wait for immigration proceedings.
Wolf’s office said it received the same information, describing the passengers as “passing through the commonwealth on the way to their destination elsewhere,” leaving the state with no role to play.
Barletta rejects that, saying HHS answers on the issue “are not good enough for me” and that Wolf and Shapiro should be more involved.
“I don’t have blind faith that what [President Joe] Biden’s administration is saying is actually happening,” Barletta said. ”What I do know is there’s a crisis at the border. They don’t know what to do with everybody and they are moving people into the interior of the country.”
Barletta infuses his questions about immigration with concerns about rising crime rates in some cities and drug trafficking at the border, especially fentanyl. He shrugs off the suggestion that children or adults transported to Pennsylvania in federal custody are unlikely to be carrying weapons or drugs.
“We don’t know that,” he said. “That’s a good question.”
Barletta crafted a political brand, reaping statewide and national attention, while serving as mayor of Hazleton from 2000 to 2010. Citing a rise in violent crime and drug dealing, he pushed for a local law making it illegal for employers to hire and landlords to rent to anyone in this country without legal immigration documentation.
That law was never enforced. A federal judge blocked it as unconstitutional. The resulting legal battle, which lasted for a decade and reached the U.S. Supreme Court, cost Hazleton nearly $1.7 million in legal fees.
Still, Barletta touted his aggressive stance on immigration matters when he ran in 2018 for the U.S. Senate, drawing an endorsement from then-President Trump, who visited the state for a Barletta fund-raiser and rally. Barletta lost to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and then launched a political action committee to support federal candidates who shared his views on immigration.
Barletta’s advocacy attracted attention from some of his Republican primary rivals in the last month.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman sent Wolf a letter on Dec. 29 calling for “full transparency” about the flights.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County raised the issue when he entered the race last weekend and called Thursday for more information to be released. He is cosponsor for legislation that would call on the federal government to send undocumented immigrants to Biden’s home state of Delaware.
Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain of West Chester suggested that Wolf and Shapiro have a duty to fight Biden’s administration on the issue, claiming the flights “perpetuate illegal immigration.”
The Republican candidates for governor have all been critical of Wolf, a Democrat, and his time in office. Shapiro is the only declared Democratic candidate for governor.
Barletta rejects any suggestion that he is attempting to turn the conversation in his primary toward immigration because of that history — while again touting that history.
“I was one of the first people in the country to do anything about it,” he said. “When it wasn’t very popular for any elected official to come out against illegal immigration, I fought it all the way to the Supreme Court.”