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US state politician misrepresents college basketball players as 'illegal invaders'

A Republican politician from the US state of Michigan is claiming he caught "illegal invaders" arriving at an airport in Detroit. This is false; the photos show buses used to transport collegiate men's basketball teams and an aircraft that flew in the Gonzaga University squad.

"Happening right now. Three busses (sic) just loaded up with illegal invaders at Detroit Metro," says Matt Maddock, a Donald-Trump endorsed Michigan state representative, in a March 27, 2024 post on X. "Anyone have an idea where they're headed with their police escort?"

<span>Screenshot from X taken March 28, 2024</span>
Screenshot from X taken March 28, 2024

The post includes a photo of three white buses and another showing an Allegiant Airlines plane. Radio host Justin Barclay and Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, amplified it.

Migration across the US-Mexico is a central issue in the 2024 presidential election, which is likely to pit Trump against President Joe Biden in a rematch of the 2020 race. Republican governors in Texas and Florida have been busing -- and sometimes flying -- migrants to jurisdictions governed by Democrats, including New York City.

But the photos Maddock posted do not show undocumented immigrants descending on Detroit.

In reality, the transportation was arranged for collegiate men's basketball teams playing at the city's Little Caesars Arena as part of the NCAA Tournament known as "March Madness." The teams are seeking a spot in the Final Four, and eventually the national NCAA title.

The 64-team competition is down to just 16 schools, with Purdue University, the University of Tennessee, Creighton University and Gonzaga remaining in the bracket's Midwest region. The March 29 games include Purdue versus Gonzaga and Tennessee versus Creighton

All four teams arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) the evening of March 27, according to the Wayne County Airport Authority.

"The buses seen in a photograph circulating online were transporting the basketball teams and their respective staffs," the authority told AFP in a March 28 email.

The Allegiant plane shown in Maddock's other photo, meanwhile, was "carrying the Gonzaga basketball team from Spokane," airline spokesperson Hector Mejia told AFP in a March 28 email.

Photos and videos posted by the men's basketball team show the players and staff boarding an Allegiant aircraft. The only such plane that arrived March 27 at DTW came from Gonzaga's home of Spokane, according to Flightradar24, a real-time flight tracking service (archived here, here and here).

The flight landed around 7:25 pm local time, less than an hour before Maddock posted his photos to X (archived here).

<span>Screenshot from X taken March 28, 2024</span>
Screenshot from X taken March 28, 2024
<span>Screenshot from X taken March 28, 2024</span>
Screenshot from X taken March 28, 2024

Barrett Henderson, Gonzaga's assistant director of athletics and communications, confirmed to AFP that the school's team took an Allegiant plane to Detroit.

Henderson said in a March 28 email that the squad boarded three buses upon arrival, although he could not confirm they were the vehicles in Maddock's post. He said three other buses were stationed at the airport for another team when Gonzaga arrived.

None of the other teams competing in Detroit flew Allegiant, according to social media posts documenting their trips.

Purdue's squad appears to have traveled on a GlobalX plane that landed at approximately 8:39 pm, AFP determined by matching the aircraft in the team's posts with Flightrader24 data (archived here and here).

<span>Screenshot from Instagram taken March 28, 2024</span>
Screenshot from Instagram taken March 28, 2024

Creighton and Tennessee flew Avelo Airlines and Delta Airlines, respectively, on flights that appear to have arrived in Detroit a few hours earlier in the day (archived here, here, here and here).

<span>Screenshot from X taken March 28, 2024</span>
Screenshot from X taken March 28, 2024
<span>Screenshot from Instagram taken March 28, 2024</span>
Screenshot from Instagram taken March 28, 2024

AFP has debunked other misinformation about migration here.