As University of Washington researchers prepared to release a report highlighting King County’s “collaboration” with flights deporting immigrants, county Executive Dow Constantine signed an order Tuesday that seeks – eventually – to ban such flights from using the airport he oversees.
At a news conference Tuesday at King County International Airport, commonly known as Boeing Field, county officials said they believe it is the first attempt by any jurisdiction in the country to ban flights carried out for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“We are hoping to be leading the way,” said Rachel Smith, deputy county executive and chief of staff.
Charter companies working on ICE’s behalf regularly use Boeing Field to fly immigrants to their home countries, and to bring others in from around the country for incarceration at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, according to a report by the UW Center for Human Rights.
The center obtained an ICE database showing that deportation flights from Boeing Field carried roughly 34,000 people away over the last eight years.
County officials said their announcement was not timed to the release of the report, though the news conference happened just one day before a planned event by the UW researchers where they were to explain their findings.
Neither ICE nor the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had an immediate comment on the executive order. “We do not comment on hypotheticals,” said an FAA spokesperson.
Smith said the county expects legal challenges.
When the federal government gave the land for Boeing Field to the county, it stipulated that federal aircraft be allowed to use the airport. John Parrott, the airport’s director, said the county believed the executive order would not violate the stipulation because ICE doesn’t directly operate deportation flights. Charter companies do.
The executive order directs county officials to rewrite future leases with three companies – so-called “fixed base operators” – that rent space at the airport and provide services to charter flights: for instance, refueling planes. The new contracts would prohibit those companies from servicing flights transporting immigrant detainees.
Yet the county has accepted grants that forbid it from discriminating against any aircraft, according to the FAA.
“There’s a very subtle nuance with the FAA,” Parrott said. The agency does not allow “unjust discrimination” but does allow “just discrimination,” he said, meaning that the county has to have a reason.
The executive order elaborates on the county’s reason: “Deportations raise deeply troubling human rights concerns which are inconsistent with the values of King County, including separations of families, increases of racial disproportionality in policing, deportations of people into unsafe situations in other countries, and constitutional concerns of due process.”
County officials said they did not know when current leases at the airport expire and new ones could be negotiated. In the meantime, they said, they would try to monitor ICE flights by conducting audits of the businesses involved and by putting security cameras at key spots.
“We’re gratified to see they’re taking the concerns raised by our research seriously,” said Angelina Godoy, director of the Center for Human Rights.
That research looks at the scope of operations involved in what’s known as “ICE Air.” The center wrote two reports, one analyzing national data and one related specifically to King County.
Both reports look at the players involved. One charter company working for ICE Air, for instance, is Arizona-based Swift Air, which on its website advertises its “premier VIP operations” and “exceptional service” to professional sports teams and Fortune 500 companies.
Swift Air did not return a phone call and email seeking comment on its ICE flights.
The UW reports also point to allegations of abuse on two ICE flights. One was a deportation flight to Somalia, during which a mechanical problem caused the plane to turn back. When the plane returned to the U.S., some passengers said they had been handcuffed and shackled for nearly 48 hours, were beaten and forced to urinate in bottles or on themselves.
“The allegations of ICE mistreatment onboard the Somali flight are categorically false,” said ICE in a statement.
The reports also say codes in the database they received indicate thousands of people have been deported despite pending appeals of deportation orders. The UW researchers relied on other analysts familiar with immigration procedures to decipher the codes.
Asked whether ICE is, in fact, deporting people with pending appeals, agency spokesperson Brendan Raedy did not answer the question directly but said in an email: “ICE removes aliens ordered removed and denied relief from removal by an immigration judge or appellate tribunal.”
As the county was gearing up to make its announcement, ICE Air flights continued as usual. Tuesday is the day when such flights typically bring detainees in and out of Boeing field, according to the UW researchers.
Around 10 a.m., a Boeing 737-300 owned by Swift Air touched down. The operator, according to a flight tracking website, was ICE. Its mission was noted by a word alongside the agency name: “repatriate.”
Correction: The chart on this story was corrected April 24, 2019, to reflect that the number of annual departures, in orange, is greater than the number of annual arrivals, in yellow. In the chart originally published with this story, the labels on the legend were erroneously reversed. The number of deportation flights in the text of the story was correct.