Barletta spars with Wolf, Shapiro

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Jan. 1—WILKES-BARRE — Former Congressman Lou Barletta, now a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 2022, received some strong criticism from Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is the presumed Democratic candidate for governor.

And Barletta fired back.

Barletta, of Hazleton, lashed out at Wolf and Shapiro for their "complete disregard" for the safety of Pennsylvanians concerning four flights carrying undocumented immigrants landed at the airport in recent weeks.

Barletta said the flights were arranged through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transport undocumented immigrants.

Barletta, a former member of the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, demanded answers from Wolf and Shapiro in a letter last week, after similar flights allegedly took place on Dec. 17.

"I asked Gov. Wolf and Attorney General Shapiro a series of straightforward questions about these flights, and they haven't provided any answers," Barletta said earlier this week. "People want to know if illegal immigrants are being transported to our community, whether they've undergone background checks and health screenings, and why no one was notified that this was happening."

Elizabeth Rementer, Gov. Tom Wolf's Press Secretary, issued a statement regarding the inquiries from Barletta.

"To clarify, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of Justice (DOJ) share responsibility for UAC processing, treatment, placement, and immigration case adjudication," Rementer said.

She added that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehends and detains UAC arrested at the border. DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) handles custody transfer and repatriation responsibilities, apprehends UAC in the interior of the country, and represents the government in removal proceedings. HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) coordinates and implements the care and placement of UAC in appropriate custodial settings. DOJ's Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) adjudicates UAC removal cases.

"That said, Mr. Barletta, a private citizen, reached out to the wrong offices," Rementer said. "He should know better, being a former federal representative, and the fact that he contacted the governor and attorney general seems to be nothing more than a PR stunt. And if he is unaware of the appropriate roles of the state and federal government in regards to immigration, that's extremely concerning."

Barletta responded by stating, "This is a flippant and childish answer that shows blind trust in an incompetent and uncaring Biden administration, and doesn't explain whether Tom Wolf and Josh Shapiro knew these flights were happening and kept them secret. Obviously, the federal government is tasked with immigration enforcement, but the governor and attorney general are responsible for keeping Pennsylvanians safe and informed."

Barletta continued, "This unacceptable reply doesn't answer whether they had knowledge of the health status of the illegal immigrants, or whether there were background checks conducted on any adults in the group. The attitude displayed by Wolf and Shapiro shows a complete disregard for the safety of Pennsylvanians, and it shows that they have no problems keeping the truth from our citizens."

Jacklin Rhoads, Communications Director for AG Shapiro, also responded to Barletta.

"As the former member of Congress knows, our office has no authority in federal aviation and immigration matters, which are handled by U.S. Congress. We will forward his concerns to the appropriate federal authorities."

U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Dallas, has been trying to get answers to many questions he has and also raised by Barletta.

Following a conference call Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to discuss the recent flights into the airport, Meuser said the agency verified that it had organized flights transporting unaccompanied minor illegal immigrants.

Meuser said the majority of the children are being released to family members, while others are being sent to HHS contracted facilities. He said upon being released from HHS custody, the minors will begin "standard immigration proceedings."

None of the undocumented children remained in Luzerne County, Meuser said he was told.

"The agency attributed their increased use of charter flights to the increased volume of unaccompanied minors at the southern border,' Meuser said. "

Four HHS-sponsored flights arrived at the airport on Dec. 11, Dec. 17 and two on Dec, 25. Three more were scheduled to arrive, one each on Thursday, Dec. 30, Friday, Dec. 31, and Saturday, Jan. 1. Those flights, sources have said, were re-routed.

On Wednesday, James Gallagher, president of Aviation Technologies, and attorney Donald J. Frederickson, Jr., solicitor to the Bi-County Airport Board, each said that since the airport and Aviation Technologies receive federal funding, it is unlikely that the flights can be turned away. Gallagher said his company holds contracts with the federal government and the U.S. military.

The Bi-County Airport Board held a virtual executive session Wednesday morning, after which Fredrickson released the following statement:

"Neither the Airport nor the Airport's FBO may legally deny use of AVP's facilities to any operator based on the identity of passengers or the purpose of the flight, nor can either control when any specific flight lands or departs."

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.

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