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.

Lena Elmeli­gy is a writer who grad­u­at­ed from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty after study­ing Radio, Tele­vi­sion and Film and Mid­dle East and North African Studies.
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