ICE Says It Believes 30 More Illegals May Have Attended U.S. Flight Schools

By Edwin Mora | July 20, 2012 | 5:48 PM EDT

( -- A federal immigration enforcement operation dubbed “Clipped Wings” has produced 30 leads and four administrative arrests of “possible” illegal aliens, individuals who the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) allowed to attend U.S. flight schools, an Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) official told lawmakers this week.


John Woods, the assistant director of the Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) division at ICE, a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), discussed “Operation Clipped Wings,” which was implemented in December 2011, during a July 18 hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security. The hearing was entitled “A Decade After 9/11 Could American Flight Schools Still Unknowingly Be Training Terrorists?”

ICE’s HSI special agents are currently investigating the 30 leads, which were generated by the agency’s operation after it discovered in March 2010 that 25 illegal aliens were allowed to attend a Boston-area flight school that was itself owned by an illegal alien.

Three of the aliens were able to obtain an FAA airmen certificate, which is a pilot’s license; two received an FAA private pilot certificate; and one was able to receive a commercial pilot certificate, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which made the matter of the 25 illegals at the flight school public during July 18  hearing.

The illegal alien flight school attendees included eight people who had entered the country in violation of the law and 17 who had overstayed their allowed time in the United States, reported the GAO.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who was the sitting ranking-member of the subcommittee, asked HSI’s John Woods, “How can I support TSA’s ongoing process to vet foreign nationals prior to training at a flight school?”

Woods said, “We have been for the past year vetting TSA’s alien flight school population. We have vetted over 19,200 individuals for them, for their immigration status. As I said in my oral statement, we have identified 30 possible individuals that were here unlawfully, overstayed their visa, and we sent those leads out to the field under ‘Operation Clipped Wings’ to initiate investigations.”

(AP Photo)

During his opening statement, Woods explained that the immigration enforcement operation is “aimed at mitigating the vulnerabilities identified in the Alien Flight School Program [AFSP] and the critical infrastructure that is associated with aviation.”

The AFSP is administered by TSA and has a mission to ensure that new and existing foreign national flight school students in the United States do no pose a threat to aviation or national security.

The first phase of ICE’s “Operation Clipped Wings” involves “HSI special agents focusing on investigative efforts on those foreign nationals that have been identified in the AFSP database [as] having received flight training in the United States and who have overstayed the terms of their admission,” Woods told lawmakers.

“The second phase will be centered on conducting proper immigration checks of all Federal Aviation [Administration]-certified pilots and crew members,” he said. “And the final phase will focus on employees at repair stations, locations that are certified by the FAA to repair aircraft. To date, Operation Clipped Wings has identified over 30 investigative leads for HSI special agents to follow up on and led to four administrative arrests.”

Woods highlighted the March 2010 ICE investigation, which led to the discovery of the 25 illegals who attended a Boston-area flight school.

“In 2010, ICE HSI special agents investigated TJ Aviation, a flight school in Boston, whose flight students consisted primarily of visa overstays and illegal aliens,” said Woods. “This investigation drew attention to the alien flight training in the United States and the vulnerabilities that persisted nearly a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

“Shortly after the TJ Aviation investigation, HSI has worked with TSA to help refine the Alien Flight School Program policies and procedures,” he added.

The TSA now “conducts checks of active alien flight students against US-VISIT’s [U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology] Arrival and Departure Information System [ADIS] to identify whether an individual may have overstayed the terms of their admission and provides results to the [ICE’s] CTCEU [Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit] to take enforcement action,” said Woods.

“Another significant change is TSA has been refining their operating procedures to include having TSA inspectors talk to alien flight students and physically inspect their documents and log books,” he said. “Additionally, we’re conducting these investigations with them on weekends when the majority of the flight training takes place.”

The Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit implemented “Operation Clipped Wings” in December 2011, according to Woods. That is more than a year after ICE had discovered the 25 illegals at the Boston flight school.

The 911 Commission Report revealed that the terrorists involved in the 911 attacks trained at U.S. flight schools and that four of the hijackers were in the country illegally after overstaying their allowed admission into the United States.

During the July 18 House subcommittee hearing, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the panel’s chairman, asked the GAO, "Isn't it true that, based on your report, the Transportation Security Administration cannot assure the American people that foreign terrorists are not in this country learning how to fly airplanes, yes or no?"

Lord from the GAO said,  “At this time, no.”

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