Was UPS Bringing Refugees into the U.S. on Cargo Flights?

A xenophobic conspiracy theory video floated on Facebook in November 2015 not only remains active on the platform in 2023, but was pushed by political candidates as recently as 2022.

The footage — literally a driver filming a bus in front of him at night — pushes the claim that United Parcel Service (UPS) is transporting refugees by air to a Pennsylvania airport.

“These buses, there about 30 of them, were lined up on the outside of a UPS flight out of Harrisburg International Airport,” the video’s unseen narrator says. “That is a parcel flight. Why are hundreds of people being snuck in on a UPS flight? This is no lie. We caught them red-handed.”

Of course, no one was caught “red-handed” at all; only one bus can (barely) be seen in the video, and no aircraft is visible. But that has not prevented it from amassing more than 250,000 views on Facebook — let alone remaining visible on the platform despite no evidence.

“UPS is a cargo airline and has not been involved in passenger flights of any kind into or out of Harrisburg. Suggestions to the contrary are based on misinformation,” a company spokesperson told us.

The airport itself does work with UPS; according to the facility’s website, it receives around 22,800 tons of air cargo brought into the region:

Typically, air cargo is flown in from Williamsport and Scranton and is combined with cargo delivered by truck. It is then flown by FedEx to New York, Indianapolis and Memphis, or by UPS to Louisville. During the holiday season, UPS will add a daily 747 flight to the regular schedule.

The airport itself primarily handles domestic flights, though Air Canada does offer some flights from Harrisburg to Toronto. To date there remains no evidence of “covert” flights carrying enough people to fill 1 bus, never mind 30 of them.

Like many disinformation tropes, versions of the video’s central claim — that “outside agitators” were being imported into the country to wreak havoc — have been repurposed to attack other groups, whether it be “Antifa” or the Black Lives Matter movement. The explicitly xenophobic element of the claim can also be seen at work in attempts to demonize immigrant “caravans” traveling toward the U.S. seeking asylum (which remains a legal act).

In January 2022, Lou Barletta, a right-wing gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, also recycled the conspiracy theory, claiming that “secret flights” carrying immigrants were being routed to Lehigh Valley International Airport.

As WHYY-FM reported, Barletta’s attack became a right-wing talking point. But in reality, the flights were not secretive at all; they had been chartered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help undocumented children:

Essey Workie, who spent a decade at HHS working on refugee resettlement and now works for the Migration Policy Institute, notes that whenever a child is apprehended by Border Patrol and is determined to be unaccompanied, ICE has 72 hours to get them to an Office of Refugee Resettlement-funded shelter.

“So there’s transportation … from the initial apprehension, to the shelter facility in other parts of the U.S.,” Workie said. “Even once a child is in a shelter, there may be additional travel to other shelter centers, or releases to sponsors and parents.”

Barletta would go on to lose the GOP gubernatorial primary to Doug Mastriano, who would himself lose the general election to Democrat Josh Shapiro.

Update 2/17/2023 4:38 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag