Over past couple of weeks, conservatives have placed private airlines front and center in the national immigration debate. Recently, conservative commentator Ashley St. Clair posted a video on social media from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that apparently showed migrants who were just released from detention centers getting ready to board a Delta Airlines flight to New York. Then, Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) took to X, formerly known as Twitter, to express his discontent with major airliners’ participation in moving migrants around the country, and he even sent a letter to Delta requesting specific information regarding the transportation of migrants on their planes.
Rather than take this up with the agencies and policymakers who are allegedly doling out taxpayer dollars to purchase these airline tickets, Republicans have chosen to target Delta Airlines—a private company—for being used in these political machinations. By tying the airlines themselves into the issue, conservatives are putting civil liberties and economic freedoms at risk of government abuse.
Requiring airlines to produce superfluous information about their fliers as a result of political disputes imposes unnecessary costs on them, which creates incentives for them to undertake discriminatory actions in future cases of air travel where they fear flying specific individuals might lead to government harassment. The data collection and transfer process can also put flier privacy at risk.
Republican politicians ought to consider the unintended consequences of roping airlines into this political debate, namely, giving the government precedent and a tool to harass transportation companies providing services to individuals that government actors oppose for mere political reasons.
In his letter to Delta, Matt Gaetz stated that he is interested in how migrants are able to travel on Delta with the help of federal agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who often receive federal grants, i.e., taxpayer dollars. Gaetz requested that Delta provide information on the number of migrants Delta has flown on behalf of the government or NGOs since January of 2021, the process by which NGOs might be purchasing tickets for migrants, whether the federal government is paying for the air travel of migrants, and what the TSA guidelines are, if any, on acceptable forms of identification for migrant travelers.
These are all valid concerns, but the congressman is harassing the wrong institution. If conservatives allow this action to go uncontested, they will launch down a slippery slope that could lead to even greater government control. There will be a clear history and means for the government to use against travel companies in the future if they oppose the groups on board for political reasons. Simply put, Gaetz data requests set a bad precedent that put economic and civil liberties at risk.
If Gaetz and other conservatives in the House have questions about federal funding of migrant travel, grants to NGOs, and TSA guidelines, they should be questioning government agencies, not the airlines. Furthermore, it isn’t clear that the airlines have a choice on whether or not they fly migrants. Marguerite Telford, Director of Communications at the Center for Immigration Studies, stated on X that “the federal government is using their contracted seats to transport” these migrants and that “the airlines have no control over this.” Even if the airlines did have a say, would we want to live in a world where airlines preclude certain individuals from air travel simply based on political pressure from the federal government?
Conservatives are right to express concern that taxpayers might be paying to fly migrants around the country, but their ire should be focused at immigration policy and government agencies and their practices, not at private institutions. Placing so much focus on airliners and even requesting they produce various reports distracts from the real cause of these undesirable outcomes and puts traveler freedom at risk.