Recent events have focused new attention on Yakima’s role in the detention and deportation of immigrants in the Pacific Northwest, in particular to the role of the Yakima airport in ICE flights. Since May 2019, 23 ICE Air flights—and counting—have used Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field, owned and operated by the City of Yakima. These flights have arrived into Yakima bringing migrants to be held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, and departed Yakima with detainees from the Northwest Detention Center for transfer or deportation.
In Washington state, as across the nation, aggressive federal enforcement relies on a mix of private and public infrastructure at the local level. While the sight of busloads of chained detainees shuffling in leg irons across the tarmac renders Yakima’s role more visible than before, for years Yakima has been regional hub for the detention and deportation of immigrant detainees. The advent of regular flights represents a deepening of Yakima’s involvement in the national network of immigration enforcement. Each week some 90 people now flow through Yakima in ICE custody to be held at the Northwest Detention Center; and each week an average of 70 people are picked up by ICE Air at Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field for deportation.
Since 2017, researchers at the University of Washington Center for Human Rights have examined the human rights implications of federal immigration enforcement in Washington state. Our work involves the analysis of federal and local databases, individual jail files, police reports, and other records obtained under Washington State’s Public Records Act and the federal FOIA, as well as court records and interviews with community members, and, where possible, officials involved in enforcement.
At the request of immigrant community organizations, in 2018 we began research into deportation flights from King County International Airport (Boeing Field). Drawing in particular on our analysis of ICE Air’s database containing over 1.73 million records of passengers on privately-chartered flights, in April 2019 we published two research reports explaining the structure of the ICE Air network and the human rights implications of its operations: one examined ICE Air’s operations nationally, and one focused on King County. This report is the third in that series, exploring the role played by the city and county of Yakima in the dynamics of immigration detention and deportation. We believe that such analysis can yield a deeper understanding of the role played by Washington state communities in federal immigration enforcement, which is necessary to craft improved policy at the local, state, and federal level.
ICE detainees deplane at Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field from a May 18, 2019 flight operated by Swift Air. Photo courtesy of Yakima Immigrant Response Network.
The Detention and Deportation Pipeline in the Pacific Northwest
Throughout the United States, the machinery of mass deportation is inextricably related to that of mass detention. In the Pacific Northwest, Yakima has long served as a hub for ground transport and short-term detention of ICE prisoners, through which those apprehended across the region are brought en route to the Northwest Detention Center, GEO Group’s 1,575-bed immigration prison in Tacoma.
The advent of regular ICE Air flights to and from Yakima builds on this infrastructure, rendering it visible in new ways and linking it more closely to immigration enforcement at the national level—yet ICE’s use of Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field is made possible by long-term business and intergovernmental relationships that were in place well before May 2019.
In this report, we explain the elements of this system of detention and deportation, the way they interconnect, and their implications for human rights—both of long-term Yakima residents and of migrants who pass through the network.
Yakima County Jail: A Hub for Transfers of ICE Detainees
Yakima’s role in the regional detention and deportation pipeline is anchored in the decades-long relationship between Yakima County jail and the federal government. According to data released by ICE, federal detainees have been held at Yakima County jail under the terms of an Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA) since 1996. While the original agreement was between Yakima County Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshals Service, it was extended to include male detainees held for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. During 2016, the jail typically held 50-90 immigration detainees per month, according to the Yakima Herald. Since 2017, the monthly average has ascended to about 130 per month according to news reports and jail records reviewed by UWCHR. While Yakima is not the only county in the state which maintains an IGSA with ICE, as of July 2017, Yakima’s was the largest such agreement in Washington.
Most of ICE’s detainees held at Yakima County jail are not apprehended in Yakima. UWCHR researchers reviewed the jail files of more than 1100 federal immigration detainees and other detainees subjected to ICE detainers at Yakima County jail during the period from October 2016 through December 2017, and found that less than 15% of detainees were originally arrested in Yakima County. The rest were transferred from 36 other counties across the western United States, including at least 16 other counties in Washington, 16 counties in Idaho, three in Montana, and one in Oregon.
According to the County’s invoices to ICE, federal immigration detainees are held at the jail for an average of 34 hours. This is consistent with reports and documents reviewed by UWCHR, which suggest that federal immigration detainees are typically held for 24-48 hours before transfer to other facilities, typically the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Under the terms of the agreement, Yakima County receives payment of $84.51 per “federal detainee day” for each individual held at the jail for ICE. Since 2015, Yakima County has received well over a million dollars from ICE as a result. During June 2017 through April 2019, Yakima County billed ICE for $352,153 for 2,979 federal detainees, or a total of 4,167 “federal detainee days”.
In 2019, Washington’s Legislature passed the Keep Washington Working Act (SB 5497), which includes sunset provisions on all IGSAs in the state. Under the terms of this law, Yakima County Jail’s agreement with federal immigration authorities must conclude by December 2021. This law does not affect the operations of private detention centers like the Northwest Detention Center, so its passage may create incentives for ICE to seek the construction of a private facility in eastern Washington to serve as a way-station on the path to Tacoma’s NWDC, or to hold more immigration prisoners in its local sub-offices.
Ground Transport to the Northwest Detention Center
GEO Group is contracted to provide “Armed Transportation Services” to and from Yakima under the terms of its contract with ICE for the Northwest Detention Center. The contract stipulates schedules for various routes from the Seattle/Tacoma area, including to Yakima every weekday; and to Richland, Wenatchee, and Spokane via Yakima with varying frequency. The same route used by GEO to transfer immigration detainees from Yakima County jail is now also used to transport ICE Air detainees to and from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
GEO Group detainee transfer bus photographed June 5, 2019 outside Yakima County jail. Note faint GEO Group logo. Photo courtesy of Yakima Immigrant Response Network.
Deportation Flights at Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field
Following King County’s move to end deportation flights from its airport, ICE Air explored options for relocating its operations in Washington state, and—after apparently being turned down by other airports in the state—ultimately settled on Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field in May 2019. The transition to regular deportations from Yakima was likely smoothed by the pre-existing infrastructure for regular ground transport between the Northwest Detention Center and Yakima.
Yakima’s airport had also been used previously, although never regularly, for deportation flights: in October 2016, more than 130 Haitian asylum seekers were flown from Phoenix to Yakima and held for almost two months at the Yakima County jail under its agreement with ICE. In December 2016, 108 of the Haitians were transferred from Yakima to Alexandria, LA; from there, most were likely deported.
Since the resumption of ICE Air flights through Yakima in May 2019, community activists have documented most ICE flights, noting the number of detainees observed arriving and departing in ICE custody. Observers from the Yakima Immigrant Response Network report that 876 immigrant detainees have arrived on incoming flights, and 1,031 bussed from the Northwest Detention Center have departed, for a total of 1,907 detainees passing through the airport on 23 flights from May 7 through August 13, 2019.
Most of ICE’s flights to Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field operate on a loop originating at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Arizona, visiting other destinations including Las Vegas, NV; El Paso, TX; Denver, CO; and Ontario, CA; before returning to Phoenix, AZ. According to Bryan Wilcox, Seattle acting field operations director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), most of the arriving detainees are asylum seekers transferred from southern U.S. border to be held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Like ICE’s network for immigrant detention, ICE’s Air operations rely on a complex web of public and private relationships. The bulk of ICE Air flights are private charters arranged through a single air broker; since 2018, the broker contracted for this purpose has been Classic Air Charter (CAC). CAC subcontracts with other private companies to operate the flights; its two principal carriers are Swift Air and World Atlantic Airways. These companies, in turn, must also contract out for a range of services to operate deportation flights, including security and medical personnel not typical on other private charters. Most of the reported flights to Yakima have been operated by the Phoenix, AZ-based charter Swift Air, with three flights operated by World Atlantic Airlines on June 16, August 7, and August 12.
At each airport, a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) is required to handle the logistics of arrivals, departures, and fueling. At Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field, McCormick Air Center is the sole FBO. Because McCormick Air Center and CAC are private companies, the terms of McCormick’s business relationship with CAC are not matters of public record.
Invoices released to UWCHR show that the City of Yakima bills CAC for landing fees of approximately $200 for each flight, plus $60 for use of landing stairs. On at least 7 occasions, the City of Yakima has also billed Classic Air Charter additional fees of $220 or $110 for “operations security.” According to Airport Director Robert Peterson, landing fees are based on aircraft weight, and are applied universally to all airlines utilizing the airport.
A June, 2019 invoice from the City of Yakima to Classic Air Charter for Swift Air deportation flights shows charges for landing fees, use of air stairs, and operations security.
Human Rights Implications
Although most migrants’ stay in ICE custody in Yakima is relatively brief, the city and county now play an increasingly central role to the operations of mass detention and deportation, not only in the Pacific Northwest, but nationwide. It is therefore important to note the connections of Yakima’s practices to human rights violations—both those occurring in Yakima itself and those facilitated by Yakima’s activities in the national network.
Abuses in detention
In the context of contemporary immigration enforcement, rights violations in detention have been amply documented across the nation: they include abuse, medical neglect, deaths in detention, the separation of minors from their families, and other concerns. At present, we are unaware of any investigation of conditions for immigration detainees within the Yakima County Jail, though fifteen inmates have reportedly died in Yakima custody in the past decade.
Yakima County jail’s relationship with ICE has been also associated with violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. In 2017 and 2018, Columbia Legal Services and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) successfully brought suit against the county for holding immigrants for ICE after they were eligible for release on local charges. A February 2019 settlement required Yakima County to adopt a set of policy changes and pay $181,915 in damages and legal fees. The county also paid $155,841 to the private legal firm it hired to represent it in these cases. These expenses are borne by Yakima taxpayers.
Furthermore, UWCHR’s examination of Yakima County Jail records raises questions about the legality of holding female detainees for ICE. Records show this is a regular practice, yet the County’s agreement with the U.S. Marshals and ICE only permits the detention of males. Correction (August 20, 2019): The IGSA between Yakima County jail and the U.S. Marshals Service was updated to include adult female prisoners in May 2018.
Yakima community members protest immigration detention at the Yakima County jail, July 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Yakima Immigrant Response Network.
Abuses in deportation
The process of deportation itself, even where legal, is connected with human rights abuses. Deportation separates families, leaving serious and well-documented mental health impacts, not only on deportees themselves but on family and community members; in some cases, deportation itself has led to death. As Human Rights Watch noted in 2007, “When Congress changed deportation law in 1996 it broke with international human rights standards in ways never before attempted in the United States. Four important human rights are violated by US deportation policies as applied to immigrants…: the right to raise defenses to deportation, the principle of proportionality, the right to family unity, and the right to protection from return to persecution.”
Our examination of ICE Air’s ARTS database uncovered evidence of precisely these rights violations. For example, ICE’s own data indicates that from FY 2011-2018, over 8000 people were deported despite having pending appeals before the U.S. courts. The recent expansion of expedited removal, however—a category through which individuals are subjected to deportation without judicial review—makes it probable that a majority of those passing through Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field will have never had an opportunity to plead their case before a judge, raising core due process concerns. Furthermore, as discussed in our analysis of ICE’s database, the data shows that people are being deported to areas where many face grave threats, raising concerns about refoulement—the expulsion of people to areas where they are likely to face persecution. We have filed additional requests for more recent data showing how many individuals in these categories have been deported through Yakima.
Equally concerning are allegations of egregious abuses on the deportation flights themselves; as our previous reports noted, the most well-known case involved a 2017 deportation flight to Somalia which was delayed on the tarmac in Senegal for almost 24 hours, during which time detainees were physically assaulted, threatened, denied access to a working restroom, and in some cases placed in full-body restraints. And other troubling accounts have surfaced more recently: UWCHR recently obtained a copy of the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties complaints log, which included numerous accounts of physical assault by guards on deportation flights, one previously unreported death aboard an ICE flight to Honduras, and a case where a woman with a high-risk pregnancy miscarried en route to El Salvador.
While we are unaware of accounts of physical violence on flights entering or departing Yakima, there is no reason to believe such abuses are isolated to other airports or flight paths. And even if they were, Yakima would remain responsible for its role in shipping detainees to be abused in other sites. International human rights law holds governments responsible not only for refraining from abusing those in their custody, but also for transferring them into the custody of other parties who are known to be abusive.
The longer deportation flights continue at Yakima, the more likely it is that accounts will surface of abuses experienced by those transported through its airport. Since deportation flights resumed at Yakima, for example, José Velarde Quiñónez was deported to Mexico despite suffering from cancer of the face, an illness for which he received only partial treatment while in custody at the Northwest Detention Center. Doctors initially advised against his deportation while still healing from surgery, citing the risk of complications; however, on July 9, Velarde Quiñónez was deported via Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field.
José Velarde Quiñónez (left), with visible facial scars from a partially-healed surgery, is prepared for deportation via Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field on July 9, 2019. Photo courtesy Yakima Immigrant Response Network.
Lastly, if those arriving into Yakima by air are asylum-seekers who presented themselves to U.S. authorities at the southern border, as ICE has claimed, their incarceration in Washington state violates international and U.S. law, both of which recognize the right to seek asylum as a legal act. As such, in seeking asylum an individual has committed no crime, and cannot be lawfully held for the duration of their case. Indefinite detention without criminal charge violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as a federal district court in Seattle ruled last month when striking down directions issued earlier this year by Attorney General William Barr. Arbitrary detention also contravenes the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the United States has ratified and incorporated into domestic law.
Profit at What Price?
As noted above, the city and county of Yakima derive revenue from ICE’s operations at their airport and jail; Yakima’s City Manager has cited these finances as motivation for continuing these activities in the best interests of the city. Officials have also cited the desirability of federal grants as a source of funds for safety and infrastructure improvements at the airport. Yet some residents of Yakima argue that such grants and profits come at a steep price in terms of their own safety and well-being.
ICE claims that detention and deportation are necessary to ensure the safety of the U.S. public; in a May 2019 news release issued in Seattle, the agency asserted that it “uses local airports to deport dangerous criminal aliens,” and that “cooperation by local officials is an indispensable component of promoting public safety.” Yet it is worth asking the extent to which, if at all, the Yakima public is safer as a result of ICE’s use of the jail and airport.
First, ICE has been known to exaggerate the criminality of those it targets. The Yakima County Department of Corrections does not track criminal charges or convictions for federal immigration detainees under its contract with ICE, and ICE officials have declined to provide this information. But according to data analyzed by Syracuse University’s TRAC, 29.5% of people arrested by ICE in Washington state during Fiscal Year 2018 had never been convicted of any crime—and still more have only been convicted of traffic violations or civil immigration charges.
Whatever public safety benefit accrues from the removal of a yet-undisclosed number of truly dangerous individuals—most of whom were likely not apprehended in Yakima to begin with—must be weighed against the growing insecurity experienced by many of those who live and work in Yakima.
In response to community members’ fear, ICE has claimed that its detention and deportation operations are targeted rather than indiscriminate, so Yakima residents need not fear being swept up in a raid simply because ICE is present at the airport. Yet there are some indications this isn’t always the case; ICE’s relationships with local governments make it easy for individuals to wind up in agency custody when they were not specifically being sought. For example, in one March 2019 case of mistaken identity, an individual was arrested in Pasco and taken to Benton County Jail on a warrant issued for another person; despite awareness that they had the wrong man, Benton County authorities handed him over to ICE, who brought him to Yakima, where he entered the detention-deportation pipeline.
This is similar to other cases of “collateral arrests” where individuals who happen to be at the scene of an ICE enforcement action, despite not being its target, are also detained; critics charge that these secondary arrests amount to racial profiling, as ICE apparently uses physical appearance to decide which passers-by to question during such operations. In this context, Yakima residents’ fear that the agency’s increased presence in their communities renders them increasingly vulnerable to racially-motivated policing is not unreasonable.
Absent transparent reporting about the means and justifications for immigrant apprehensions in Yakima and elsewhere, claims that ICE’s activity in Yakima produces a public safety benefit remain unsubstantiated. Claims that ICE’s activity spreads fear were aired in abundance at a July 16, 2019 meeting of the Yakima City Council, where a proposed resolution to stop the deportation flights failed on a 4-3 vote. A related resolution was passed, calling for an investigation of any potential legal liabilities to the city as a result of its role in deportation flights.
This is an important matter to address. Although the City of Yakima does not have a contract with ICE for deportation flights, it provides the infrastructure through which McCormick Air Center, the FBO operating at the airport, does business with ICE subcontractors to carry out deportation flights. The city is legally responsible for overseeing the operations of the FBO to whom they lease space. Under federal law, the City clearly has the responsibility to oversee the health, safety, and public welfare implications of all operations at its airport.
While the FAA Airport Compliance Manual, for example, prohibits economic discrimination that would limit aircraft operators from servicing their own equipment at the airport, it recognizes the legitimacy of airport restrictions on operations that are harmful to the community. The manual specifically states that “The establishment of reasonable rules, applied in a not unjustly discriminatory manner, restricting the introduction of equipment, personnel, or practices that would be unsafe, unsightly, detrimental to the public welfare… will not be considered a violation of Grant Assurance 22(f), Economic Nondiscrimination.”
Local airports are empowered to conduct audits and ensure adherence to contract terms, which include following relevant city and county ordinances. FBO contracts with municipal airports include requirements to adhere with federal law, including stipulations to ensure that practices do not have a disproportionately adverse impact on communities of color or violate the human trafficking protections in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Local governments have the authority and obligation to ensure that FBOs are complying with these obligations.
ICE’s presence in Yakima is nothing new; while its use of airport has only recently become routine, for over a decade the agency has maintained an agreement with the County to detain immigrants in the Yakima County jail, a facility linked to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma by regular shuttles. At the same time, the now-regular use of the airport to transport migrants—both for detention and deportation—has inscribed Yakima more deeply than before into a national network known to engage in questionable, even illegal, practices. At a time of growing concern about the human rights impacts of federal immigration enforcement, residents of Washington must recognize our local governments’ involvement in national networks that facilitate and conceal abuse, and reckon with the implications when we choose to do business with such partners.
 These estimates are derived from monthly counts of inmates held at Yakima County jail, plus weekly average reported numbers of people transported by ICE Air via Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field.
 We are grateful for the support provided by various collaborators, including especially UWCHR researcher Nick DeMuro and community observers with the Yakima Immigrant Response Network.
 The GEO Group recently restyled the facility as the “Northwest ICE Processing Center”; we have retained the more familiar name “Northwest Detention Center” which was in use during the majority of the time period covered by the report.
 This dataset, released in November 2017 pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, is available via a report by the National Immigrant Justice Center.
 The top 5 counties for original arrest location during this period (excluding Yakima Co.) were: Franklin Co., WA (143); Ada Co., ID (104); Spokane Co., WA (92); Benton Co., WA (90); and Grant Co., WA (71). These figures should be considered approximate, as each detainee’s original arrest location is sometimes unclear. This ranking of counties is generally consistent with that observed in ICE arrest figures for Washington State.
 See for example TRAC Immigration’s 2016 report on Transfers of ICE Detainees from the Yakima County Facility during 2015, which cites an average stay of 2 days. Additional documents reviewed by UWCHR include email correspondence and forms exchanged between Yakima County jail and ICE personnel, such as regular reports of immigration prisoners in the jail’s custody, and I-203 “Order to Detain or Release Alien” and I-216 “Record of Persons and Property Transferred” forms which track ICE detainees arriving and departing the jail.
 Detainee counts released to UWCHR in a document titled “Chief’s Report” summarizing “Inmates Held for ICE by Month” and dated May 24, 2019, reflect a higher overall total of 3179 detainees during July 2017 through April 2019. It is not clear why these numbers differ from the number of detainees reported in the County’s invoices to ICE.
 In addition to holding detainees at the jail, ICE maintains a sub-office at 3701 River Road in Yakima which includes a small holding area; according to a 2016 report by Syracuse University’s TRAC, 17 people were detained there from October 2014 through September 2015. According to TRAC, such holding areas are allowed to temporarily hold detainees for 12-16 hours, and typically have no sleeping quarters or shower facilities.
 The contract between ICE and GEO Group was made public as a result of a lawsuit by the office of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson against the Northwest Detention Center over its policy of paying detainees $1 a day for work inside the facility.
 A July 14 article by reporter Lex Talamo for the Yakima Herald-Republic quotes ICE Seattle acting field director Bryan Wilcox Bryan Wilcox as having stated “that ICE chose Yakima’s airport after he asked several other airports, which refused.”
 Different sources cite various numbers of Haitian detainees: local press cited “about 150”, ICE Air records show 133 arriving and 108 departing via Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field; UWCHR reviewed records of 153 Haitians detained at Yakima County jail during late 2016, some of whom arrived in Yakima via ICE Air, and others of whom were transferred from the Northwest Detention Center.
 A record 5,549 Haitians were deported via ICE Air during FY2017.
 The City of Yakima has shared its own reports of passenger counts for flights from May 7 through August 12, totaling 1,881 detainees; very similar to the total of 1,852 reported by community observers for the same time period.
 Although ICE’s current contract with CAC has not been made public, the Government Accountability Office’s resolution of a February 2018 protest filed by a competitor described its value at $646 million. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General reported that “ICE Air pays, on average, $8,419 per flight hour for charter flights regardless of the number of passengers on the plane.”
 Community observers have reported the presence of individuals in a red City of Yakima pickup truck on the tarmac during some flights. According to Airport Director Robert Peterson, airport officials are required by federal regulation to observe flights to ensure compliance with operational safety and security protocols.
 In current practice, Yakima County jail should only accept inmates as contracted holds under the IGSA if they are already federal prisoners at the time they are booked into the jail. Under the terms of the IGSA, detainees must be presented to the jail by federal law enforcement officers, and released to officers of the federal agency which initially committed the detainees, or to a Deputy United States Marshal. The jail should not keep prisoners who would otherwise be eligible for release in custody under ICE detainers or administrative warrants, and should not administratively transfer inmates into ICE custody.
 ICE’s Bryan Wilcox, acting field director of enforcement and removal efforts in the Seattle Area of Responsibility, told the Yakima Herald’s Lex Talamo, “The people we are bringing into Yakima and then to the detention center are almost exclusively from the southern border seeking asylum.”
 August 6, 2019 email communication with Yakima County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Stefanie Weigand.
 According to ICE arrest data analyzed by TRAC, FY18 percentages of arrests of people with no criminal conviction for other states which send detainees to Yakima County jail are: Idaho, 13.8% no conviction; Oregon, 25.2% no conviction; Montana, 50% no conviction.
 See a video stream and minutes for the July 16, 2019 Yakima City Council meeting where various motions regarding ICE Air operations at Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field were discussed.
 See FAA Airport Compliance Manual Chapter 11 – Self Service, section 11.2 – Restrictions on Self-servicing Aircraft.