For the past 18 months, I’ve been working with the University of Washington Center for Human Rights as a communication fellow funded by the Jennifer Caldwell Endowed Fund. This opportunity was presented to me thanks to the University of Washington Communication Leadership Program, from which I will graduate in June. My work consisted of developing videos that reveal the human rights concerns that loom around ICE deportation flights and the private and institutional infrastructure behind it, called ICE Air. Simultaneously we sought to amplify the voices of families affected by the deportation of their loved ones.
Data obtained through federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed the sheer number of deportation flights and the patterns and connections among local airports around the United States. Other research revealed the contractual relationships and dealings among the many stakeholders involved in the business of deportation. Several direct testimonials exposed serious allegations of human rights violations during detention and deportation, and ICE data revealed reports of even graver abuses, including fatalities, on board these flights.
Working on a project like the ICE Air investigation was a great transition from my previous direct service experience with the International Rescue Committee. My work for the IRC opened my eyes to the many different hurdles refugees and migrants face in order to settle in the U.S. With the UWCHR project, I learned how easy and lucrative it can be to deport them. Working with the UWCHR allowed me to help shape the narrative and use the power of storytelling to communicate about injustices and human rights abuses. It was great to get to work with UW Communication Leadership alumni. Alex Montalvo provided guidance and tirelessly supported my learning experience throughout this experience, and Jason Solis, UWCHR alumnus, brought creative flair and animation expertise that solidified this work.
During this project, I was able to hone my research comprehension skills by working on interpreting ICE data obtained by the UWCHR. I grew to feel comfortable analyzing and interrogating data from diverse sources, both inside and outside our network. Of equal importance was our work meeting and listening to people on the front lines. We worked on gathering stories from deported individuals and their families and explored the social, financial, psychological, and legal toll of ICE’s deportation machinery.
Our work started by drafting a communication strategy and a video brief to guide our creative process. We worked on tracking deportation flights online, and we were able to record footage of ICE agents loading a charter plane with immigrants transported from the Northwest Detention Center to King County Airport.
The result of this effort was a three-minute video explainer that depicts the ICE Air business structure, a timeline of flight operations in Washington state, and a display of several human rights abuse cases reported during detention or on board repatriation flights. People’s stories matter. It’s what fuels people’s empathy amid data-heavy reporting. Therefore, we interviewed a victim of separation and produced a video that goes in-depth in the process of deportation. From the first call a spouse gets from a detention center, to crying kids not being able to say goodbye to their father, these are real-life situations that family members face.
I’m incredibly grateful for being part of the ICE Air team at the UWCHR. It’s been a great honor working with researchers that have invested their time and mental will to expose this machinery and shed light on thousands of stranded families in the U.S. The UWCHR’s commitment to transparency, truth, and human rights is unshakable.
This has been a great way to practice the storytelling skills I have learned throughout my Communication Leadership master’s degree experience. I joined the Commlead program knowing that I would get the opportunity to create stories that spark change. That’s what the UWCHR has provided for me. I’m energized to continue this work, and I will retain this experience as an essential career milestone.