Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Georgetown scrambles to prepare for influx of asylum seekers on plane that never arrives

Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
The tarmac at the Delaware Coastal Airport.

As word spread about a potential chartered plane carrying asylum-seekers and migrants to the Delaware Coastal Airport in Georgetown, state agencies and local community organizations rushed to make arrangements for its arrival.

The plane was chartered through the same company Florida Governor Ron DeSantis used to send a group of largely Venezuelan asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard last week – a political stunt that’s prompted a criminal investigation in Texas, where that flight originated. The flight bound for Delaware Tuesday also began in Texas.

On Tuesday morning in Georgetown, local community service organizations rushed to assemble a contingency plan. The First State Community Action Agency, a decades-old local nonprofit, sent five translators and five case workers to the airport while other staff watched Senator Chris Coons address the incoming flight in a live television interview. Across town, volunteers began arranging a temporary shelter in a medical center.

Meanwhile, the airport's small lobby teemed with members of the press, while representatives from state and local government brainstormed in a nearby conference room.

The flight, which was chartered in San Antonio, Texas, was scheduled to land in Georgetown at 1:30. Hours later, word spread the plane wouldn’t arrive: After a delay and change of airport in Texas, the plane left carrying only its crew stopped in Nashville, then continued to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. State officials and local community groups who had rushed to create an emergency plan were left to guess why the plane’s flight plan changed.

Back in Texas, the asylum seekers recruited for the flight — most of them from Venezuela — were likewise left in the dark about the change of plans. Some had hoped the flight would bring them closer to the east coast cities where their asylum hearings were scheduled; instead, they were stranded in San Antonio.

For the community groups that helped organize a response plan in less than a day, however, the incident was a chance to test their ability to react quickly to crises. First State Community Action Agency Director Bernice Edwards says she’d gladly do it again.

“With Delaware being the state that we are, and especially down here in Sussex," she said, "we worked with the state and other community partners, [and] we did it. And we are still in the mode that whenever the need arises, we are here.”

Delaware Coastal Airport is the closest to President Biden’s vacation home in Rehoboth, but Georgetown is not a resort town – the organizations responded Tuesday are more accustomed to working with residents of nearby homeless encampments and workers at the town’s two poultry processing plants.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.