We sat down with the three student researchers behind “Abuses in the Air” to ask them about their experiences working on this report. Here’s what they had to say:
Andrea Marcos: Can you tell us how the “Abuses in the Air” report started out?
Trevor Helmy: It started with someone reaching out to the Center wondering about a connection between this one sports team, the air travel company they used, and ICE deportation flights. Then it kind of spiraled in a bunch of different directions. How are sports teams using the same planes ICE is using for deportation flights? Why? In the beginning, Alex and I were really heavy in the FOIA request side of things—we put out a bunch of requests for contracts, paperwork. It was like a fishing expedition trying to catch something without a clear direction for it yet. We connected with Tom from Witness at the Border. They had this system for tracking, so we started tracking these planes with all these online tools, which brought out this giant web of what was going on—sports teams using the same planes that ICE was using for deportation flights, and all the money being made on it.
Alex Gonzalez: From the beginning it was an overwhelming process because we were some of the first people really looking into these connections. There were a lot of times where we just didn’t know where to look and how to look. It was like constructing this whole web of data systems. We also had to interact with these companies that just flat out lie to your face. It can be dissuading, but the fact is, the more we look into it, the deeper it goes and the more interconnected it all is.
Trevor: We were asking questions no one wanted to answer or be accountable to. It’s tricky when you have these travel brokers, and they’ve been confronted about these issues before, and they just don’t care. But then there’s this whole other network of people who are adjacent to them—universities, sports teams, owners of some of these planes—and they’ll take the same approach as others when asked about the connections, saying, “I don’t know what’s going on. That’s not my issue.” Everyone’s pointing to each other. And it’s frustrating, especially when we can spend a few hours digging in and there is obviously a connection.
“THE FACT IS, THE MORE WE LOOK INTO IT, THE DEEPER IT GOES AND THE MORE INTERCONNECTED IT ALL IS.”
Lukas Illa: It’s horrifying how much actual money these air charter companies and the brokers themselves make for even just a single deportation flight. I’ve been tracking mainly the collegiate sports teams while Alex has been doing the professional sports. In collegiate sports, millions of dollars go to these companies in contracts for sports travel during their seasons. And of course, the teams and athletes that are on these planes have all this messaging around diversity and inclusion, yet they are sitting on planes used in deportation flights with documented human rights abuses occurring, sometimes just days before or after. And when we bring it up, we get hit with “Why can’t you keep politics out of sports?”
Alex: Right. When we have major sports teams flying their athletes on a plane that was used to deport Haitian refugees without non-refoulement a week earlier—that’s not “keeping politics out of sports.”
One of our largest issues is trying to find someone to take accountability for it. We’ve been trying to figure out who’s responsible here for human rights abuses occurring on flights. Who’s in charge of making sure people are OK? We have elected officials in Washington State who sit on committees involved in enforcing air safety standards. What are they doing?
Trevor: It’s not an accident either; the way ICE uses contractors helps them evade responsibility of overseeing what is going on. It’s then the private air travel companies’ responsibility to report something, and that has to climb the chain to get back to ICE and be documented.
Alex: Right, we’re essentially asking the systems that benefit from these types of abuses to police themselves. Where’s the oversight?
How do you see the role of research in stopping these human rights abuses from happening?
Lukas: Well, for one, it’s hard to get information, and that is something researchers are good at. We’ve been requesting contracts between universities and charter air travel companies and seeing how much they’re spending, what the stipulations are. Coming into this, especially seeing how much work Alex and Trevor have done—tracking each plane, where it was flying to, et cetera—all of that creates a basis to put pressure on these systems we are trying to hold accountable. We are dealing with this system that has all these decentralized parts, but our research helps put that together to understand how the process is working, where the money is flowing, who is responsible.
Alex: I strongly agree. When I explain the value of our research to friends and family when they ask what we’re doing, I say that while we might not always be at the frontlines of what’s going on, we’re helping to create toolkits, graphics, and data that can be utilized by people actively fighting for human rights. As researchers, our job is really just to get down to the basics of information, see what’s happening, and share what we find in a way that others can take it and continue their work. We’re working in systems that constantly are trying to make it as complicated as possible to see what’s going on, so our job is to make it all fit into something understandable for people, so people can say, “Hey, that’s messed up,” because it is!
“AT THE END OF THE DAY, WHEN YOU SEE PEOPLE WHO ARE ALREADY WORKING ON THESE ISSUES PICKING UP OUR RESEARCH AND FINDING IT USEFUL, USING IT IN CAMPAIGNS AND LEGAL CLINICS, SEEING THAT IS INCREDIBLY MOTIVATING.”
Lukas: Right, I try to personalize it, too. Yes, it’s important for us to synthesize information and put it out there for media to pick up, but it’s just as important to break these things down. For instance, with this research, your average student can understand what’s going on and how they or their school might be implicated in the deportation industry and be able to act on that.
Trevor: One tricky thing about research, too—it can be kind of easy to lose sight of the larger picture when you’re in the weeds of researching one particular hockey team and what plane they use on what day. But then there are the moments when it all comes crashing back, like when we get documents back from a FOIA request, and it’s a list of twenty grievances or abuses we haven’t seen anywhere else. And then you’re like, “Oh, I know what plane that happened on! I know what teams are implicated in that.” And so even though it can be difficult to be in the weeds of research, there are real-world connections that are huge. And at the end of the day, when you see people who are already working on these issues picking up on our research and finding it useful, using it in campaigns and legal clinics, seeing that is incredibly motivating.
Alex: There’s a real human cause behind everything. Sometimes there’s days where I’m at my computer for six hours and I’m looking at the fortieth flight in a row, and eventually it all starts to merge together and become just digits on a screen. But I try to remember that every single one of these deportation flights is about thirty or forty people, people who came to the US seeking a better life and have to interact with this incredibly abusive immigration system. One thing that really firmed that up for me was when we did the sexual abuse research at the Northwest Detention Center, going through 500 pages of grievances; that was an emotionally draining process for me because it’s very sad. It reminds me that everything we look at during our day as researchers carries a lot of meaning; the information we’re working with, even if sometimes it’s hard and confusing, there’s a real cost to its production.
Lukas: Yes, and doing research alone sometimes can feel like you’re up against the system alone, one undergraduate researcher up against a whole system that can wait you out. This might seem trivial, but being together at the Center, hanging out, this keeps me in the work, keeps me hopeful. We have each other to support and it’s such a key part.
What will you take with you from your time with UWCHR?
Lukas: I really appreciate how the UWCHR is rooted in the truth that it’s a community effort to do human rights work. And that it takes deep connection to community organizations; it can’t be a completely removed, academic, ivory tower center that operates on its own and decides what’s best for the community. The basis of our work is rooted in what communities are already doing and trying to accomplish. Another thing is this work has really emphasized for me just how little faith I have in the state and an electoral process that will bring change. The systems we’re trying to hold accountable are so well supported by the state. We come up with this research, we hand it to decision makers, and they often don’t do anything with it unless pressured.
“WHEN WE HAVE MAJOR SPORTS TEAMS FLYING THEIR ATHLETES ON A PLANE THAT WAS USED TO DEPORT HAITIAN REFUGEES WITHOUT NON-REFOULEMENT A WEEK EARLIER—THAT’S NOT ‘KEEPING POLITICS OUT OF SPORTS.’”
Trevor: I unfortunately agree. I have cynicism about the lengths that these institutions will go to to protect the status quo. It’s a hard thing to accept, but that’s definitely going to stick with me from this work.
Alex: Something I’ll take with me is this idea about proximity. I feel like often we hear about these horrible human rights abuses that occur overseas or in the past. And it’s easy to say, “Well I’m glad that’s not happening anywhere near me.” And if this work has revealed anything for me, it’s that there are horrible things occurring around us every day that we could easily have an impact on but we’re simply not knowledgeable enough. It’s really the importance of information. You can’t really solve anything if you don’t know it exists. You can’t find it if you don’t know what to look for. The second thing I’ll take with me is the importance of verifying your information and making sure you have an iron-clad argument. When you’re up against giant institutions, who often don’t have their data straight, the quality of your data gives you an edge.
Trevor: I’m going to be graduating and out of here in a few weeks and it’s a funny feeling. There’s no end point to this work, no easy, clean accomplishment that I’m ending on. I’m leaving a whole bunch of undone stuff for Alex and Lukas to work on. But that’s just the nature of it. It takes some time to come to terms with that, but that’s the nature of the work—it’s ongoing.
Lukas: Oh Trevor, we’re going to abolish ICE before you graduate in the next few weeks.
Alex: I have that on my schedule for Wednesday.
Lukas: 3 o’clock right? See you there.
What advice do you have for future UWCHR student researchers?
Trevor: Take better notes! The biggest breakthroughs we’ve had have come through the tiniest of details. Pay constant attention; keep track of everything as best you can.
Alex: If you have grounds to object, object to your fullest extent, especially when it comes to challenging big institutions in your research. Never just take “no” from them. If you think that you can make an argument against them as per the information, do it. Because there are many times where we worked for months, and then we finally got a breakthrough. You have to be incessant about it. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you’re being annoying. Good! That’s exactly what you should be. You’ve got to make sure that when they dream, they think about your emails in their head. You need to be a constant presence in the back of their mind. Question everything and challenge everything.
Lukas: Rely on each other in your research team. And trust yourself. Rely on the skills that you have. I love public records requests, I love digging through them and making connections. And there have been parts of this project that I haven’t felt as strong in, but my other researchers are great at. Use that!
Alex: Agreed, everything we do here builds on each other’s efforts. It’s a collective process. Without one of our contributions, this wouldn’t have been the same.