This Community Stopped ICE From Using Its Airport To Deport Thousands of Immigrants

Thanks to local organizing, King County International Airport no longer provides ground support for ICE.

Lena Elmeligy

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On April 23, the government of King County, Washington released an executive order expressing the intention to ban deportation flights from passing through King County International Airport - Boeing Field. The decision, which left Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with one less facility for ground support, was won by years of local organizing by immigrant justice organizations.

In May, aviation operators agreed to stop helping ICE deport immigrants, and as far as human rights researchers and activists know, Boeing Field is no longer used for deportations.

Monserrat Padilla is a coordinator of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, an organization building a defense line for immigrant and refugee communities. In 2017, the organization established a hotline, designed to be a resource for individuals to report any observed immigration or detention activity. Through the hotline, the organization heard from passersby who said they’d witnessed ICE vehicles outside of the Boeing Field Airport, and detained persons being escorted through the airport by ICE officials, Padilla tells In These Times.

Phil Neff, project coordinator for the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, says federal detainees being brought to the the SeaTac federal detention center, during the zero-tolerance, family separation crisis, were brought through Boeing Field airport.” But the problem was not new: According to Neff, the airport was used for deportation flights as early as 2010. Activists have been aware of this for a long time,” says Neff.

From research to action

In 2018, says Neff, the county acknowledged the flights were happening and pledged to shut them down, but didn’t take action on that.” This was despite the fact that, activists argued, the deportations violated the spirit of the county’s sanctuary policies, which state that county resources should not be used for civil immigration enforcement.

In the face of the county’s complicity, local organizers took action. Immigrant justice groups including La Resistencia, formerly known as Northwest Detention Center Resistance, and the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, began holding discussions about the most effective way to stop the deportations.

Around this time, activists brought the deportation flights to the attention of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, which began further research on the use of Boeing Field Airport for deportations. Since 2016, the Center has been partnering with immigrant justice organizations in Washington state. We started working on a report through discussions with those partners,” says Neff. We made our first FOIA request to ICE for data about flights to Boeing airport in July 2018.”

Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with La Resistencia, told In These Times that the Center gathered data and shared it with her organization, which started gathering stories.” She said, That’s why the report is so complete — because we were able to match the information with life stories.”

The report, published April 23, found that King County International Airport, commonly known as Boeing Field, has served as a link in the deportation chain since the inception of ICE Air Operations in 2011.” The report found that, on average, 360 people per month were on on deportation flights leaving Boeing Field.”

This is not isolated to Boeing Field airport. According to a separate companion report released April 23 by the Center, ICE Air operations involve 88 airports in the U.S. and its territories and 134 airports in 119 other countries worldwide.”

The King County report notes that, as the investigation was being prepared for publication, King County Executive Dow Constantine issued an executive order expressing the intention to ban flights of immigrant detainees at King County International Airport.” This means that the executive order and the report have the same publication date of April 23.

Neff says, Our center communicated with the county about the research and shared a draft of it, but we played no part in drafting the executive order. We had no idea it was going to happen.”

The executive order changes the county’s leasing practices with the long-term goal of stopping ICE from using its facilities to carry out deportations. After the executive order was released, activist groups led by La Resistencia launched a campaign to ensure that the executive order would actually lead to the banning of deportation flights. Of particular concern was a passage in the executive order which stated that the county would ensure that all future leases, operating permits and other authorizations for commercial activity at King County International Airport contain a prohibition against providing aeronautical or non-aeronautical services to enterprises engaged in the business of deporting immigration detainees.”

Neff explains, These were 35-year leases. What La Resistencia said was, No, we want you to stop it within 35 days.’ To give the county credit, they eventually agreed.”

According to Neff, the implementation of the executive order hinged on a voluntary agreement by the fixed base operators to decline to service flights involving immigration detainees that actually stopped the ICE Air flights at King County International Airport. That distinction is important because, while the Department of Transportation has disputed the legality of King County’s Executive Order, to my knowledge there has been no challenge related to the decision by the private aviation service companies to decline flights involving immigration detainees.”

In May, aviation operators agreed to stop helping ICE deport immigrants, and as far as human rights researchers and activists know, Boeing Field is no longer used for deportations.

New battleground

ICE, however, moved its operations to the Yakima Air Terminal, where deportations are currently taking place. Lilly Fowler reported on May 22 for Crosscut, In the approximately two weeks since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement resumed deportation flights to Yakima, 231 detainees arriving by bus have boarded a plane headed for various hubs in the Southwest: El Paso, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Mesa, Arizona, said Yakima’s city manager Cliff Moore.” Fowler notes, The flights to Yakima Air Terminal began just days after ICE Air flights into and out of Seattle’s King County International Airport, otherwise known as Boeing Field, were discontinued.”

The Yakima Immigrant Response Network tries to maintain diligent documentation of ICE activity within its airport, as well as a presence of solidarity for those deported in Yakima. A member of the network, who requested anonymity because she is worried about stigma, told In These Times that volunteers bear witness to incoming and outgoing flights, take pictures, and document and publish their observations so that the information is accessible. We’re going, not so much to protest to try to get it shut down but to bear witness to what’s happening and document it, but to put it out on social media so people know what’s going on, to be there to answer questions from the community, and just to show solidarity to the detainees,” the individual explained.

Yakima faces more of an uphill battle, because it doesn’t have the sanctuary policies of King County. The latter has a county-wide policy to prevent the use of County funds and resources on federal immigration enforcement and outlines the steps the County will use to protect immigrants and refugees who seek services from the County or are victims/​witnesses of crime, while still adhering to federal law.” 

Whatever the obstacles, Padilla predicts that we will see more local efforts to dismantle collusion with ICE. This situation is really about walking the talk, putting our actions where our mouth is and moving forward to ensure that those policies and those contracts and that collusion is really being ripped from the root,” she says.

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Lena Elmeligy is a writer who graduated from Northwestern University after studying Radio, Television and Film and Middle East and North African Studies.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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