More than 30K immigrants have been deported via Boeing Field – King County says no more

Executive Dow Constantine vowed to end ICE’s use of the airfield in 2018. Now, as a report detailing the practice is being made public, he is attempting to make good on that promise.

Modern Aviation's Seattle facility seen at King County International Airport in Seattle, April 23, 2019. The charter jet company, owned by private equity firm Tiger Infrastructure Partners, has been assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement with transporting immigrants who are being deported. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Ahead of a revealing report released by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an order Tuesday that aims to ban the hundreds of deportation flights chartered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that have left from Boeing Field.

The report, “Hidden in Plain Sight: ICE Air and the Machinery of Mass Deportation,” discloses that since 2010 some 34,400 detainees on 466 flights have been deported by flying out of King County International Airport, which is also known as Boeing Field. According to the report, an average of 360 people are deported every month on flights from that location.

The report is based on a database of ICE Air operations from 2010 to 2018, which the UW Center for Human Rights obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The center claims it is the first time any portion of the database has been made public.  

The report points out that the deportation flights have continued unabated despite King County’s designation as a sanctuary region and Constantine’s promise in 2018 that he would shut down the flights and “make sure our publicly owned airport built by the people of this county is not used to perpetuate this brutality against people.”

Now, in what is believed to be the first attempt in the country to place a ban on ICE Air flights, Constantine is vowing to ensure "any leases with companies that operate hangars and other facilities at King County International Airport comply with local immigration and human rights ordinances."

Asked whether King County could actually ban ICE Air flights, Allen Kenitzer of the Federal Aviation Administration would only say that the grant funding the county receives requires it to "make the airport available on reasonable terms without unjust discrimination" for aviation services.

"We do not comment on hypotheticals," Kenitzer added.

In a statement, Tanya Roman, a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, said: "ICE removes thousands of aliens each year, and does so humanely and in full compliance with domestic law and U.S. treaty obligations. To suggest that the enforcement of federal immigration laws is somehow a human rights violation is irresponsible and reflects either a profound misunderstanding or willful mischaracterization of those laws." 

“ICE maintains that cooperation by local officials is an indispensable component of promoting public safety," Roman said. "It’s unfortunate to see yet another example of local policymaking aimed at intimidating ICE and our partners, particularly when such policies harm the very communities whose welfare they claim to protect, by making it more difficult to remove criminal aliens who prey upon the innocent.”

Some of the flights leaving Boeing Field deport people directly to international destinations, such as China, Guatemala and El Salvador. But the majority of deportees from King County, according to the report, are first transferred to other U.S. airports, such as PhoenixMesa Gateway Airport and El Paso International Airport. Detainees are then either put on connection flights, bused across the Mexican border, or relocated to detention centers elsewhere in the United States.

The majority of deportees are Mexicans or Central Americans, but records also showed deportations of others, such as refugees from Somalia and Cambodia. The deportations include people being sent to countries experiencing high levels of violence.

Center for Human Rights researchers also point to accounts of physical violence on planes chartered by ICE. For example, in a 2017 flight from El Paso to Somalia, passengers, including some from King County, were allegedly beaten, kicked, threatened, denied access to the bathroom and placed in full-body restraints. Some of those denied access to bathrooms reportedly soiled themselves in their seats. That same year dozens of passengers joined a class action lawsuit and sued the federal government over the alleged mistreatment. 

The Center for Human Rights also said deportees and their families have reported abuse on the Boeing Field tarmac: “A Salvadoran man, for example, described being subjected to rough physical treatment and degrading insults by the guards supervising the boarding process. The guards referred to deportees as ‘scum’ and accused them of stealing jobs ... and they shoved them, causing some to stumble in their leg irons as they walked to the plane.”

Some of the detainees also have pending appeals and at least 2,615 passengers were deported from King County without the opportunity to see a judge, according to the report.

Additionally, UW researchers obtained evidence that some detainees have traveled without the proper travel documents, violating ICE's own guidelines.

Although King County doesn’t have a contract with ICE, it allows private companies, such as Classic Air Charter (CAC), under contract with the Department of Homeland Security, to operate at Boeing Field, the report said. Classic Air Charter subcontracts with other private companies, such as Swift Air and World Atlantic Airlines. The Center for Human Rights said King County documents show that deportation flights typically depart on Tuesday mornings.

Pickup Stats
(Graphic courtesy of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights)

Nationally, the UW Center for Human Rights obtained more than 1.73 million records of passengers on nearly 15,000 ICE Air flights from Oct. 1, 2010 to Dec. 5, 2018. Those deportations make up approximately 44 to 53 percent of total removals conducted by ICE’s Division of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) — the branch of the agency responsible for deportations. UW researchers said they were not sure what accounts for the remaining deportations.

Notably, according to the report, 52 percent of those removed in 2018 had no criminal record. 

With regard to King County, Center for Human Rights researchers state that while many residents may be proud of county leaders’ stated commitment to welcome immigrants, those statements are meaningless if the “county airport continues to facilitate the mass deportation of members of our immigrant communities.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on race, immigration and other issues.