The below text is featured in the UWCHR 2022-2023 Annual Report.
King County, Port of Seattle Must Demand Humane Conditions for ICE Deportation Flights
By Angelina Snodgrass Godoy
Reprinted with permission from South Seattle Emerald, read the article online here.
On Tuesday, May 2, 2023, ICE resumed its deportation flights out of King County’s Boeing Field. This is the shameful result of a federal judge’s ruling in April that despite known abuses on deportation flights, the county is not allowed to decline to participate in them, as it did when Dow Constantine issued an executive order in May 2019. (Since that time, deportation flights have been routed through Yakima.)
“Residents of King County should be proud of our County Executive’s 2019 response to evidence of routine human rights violations in deportations on the private charter flights known as ‘ICE Air’ from our county-owned airport.”
This latest decision is part of a broader trend in which the Biden administration continues Trump-era legal lawsuits against counties and states who seek to protect migrants’ rights. Last fall, a federal court struck down California’s ban on private ICE detention, a decision with implications for Washington, which passed a similar law in 2021. In both that case and the one concerning Boeing Field, the federal government stepped in to ensure that private companies can continue making money off the caging and transporting of migrants, even in states where elected majorities oppose such practices.
But residents of King County should be proud of our county executive’s 2019 response to evidence of routine human rights violations in deportations on the private charter flights known as “ICE Air” from our county-owned airport. ICE’s own records showed that hundreds had been deported through Boeing Field without due process, some of them with pending legal cases in US courts; others were returned to violence in their countries of origin, in defiance of US and international asylum law. And some reported harassment and even physical violence in the deportation process.
Since the flights ended at Boeing Field, researchers at the University of Washington have continued to document abuse throughout the ICE Air network. In one particularly disturbing example, multiple Cameroonians reported the use of a full-body restraining device called “The Wrap,” applied atop five-point shackles, on deportation flights in 2020. In another case of needless cruelty, a Haitian wheelchair user was forced to use only his arms, unassisted, to drag himself onto an aircraft and down its center aisle.
ICE also deports people on regular flights from major commercial airports—and these flights, too, have been marred by violence. In 2019, for example, ICE officers beat and tased a man in JFK Airport when he refused to board a deportation flight, asserting—correctly—that he had received a stay of removal from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and that ICE’s attempt to forcibly deport him was therefore illegal. Closer to home, ICE pepper-sprayed a man they sought to deport on the tarmac at SeaTac International Airport in 2015.
What’s more, ICE records show that even in cases where flights out of SeaTac elapsed without physical violence, many resulted in the needless separation of families after parents apprehended crossing the northern border were separated from their children, the fathers sent to detention in Tacoma and mothers and children held in motels near the airport and then put on commercial flights from SeaTac.
The Port of Seattle posts signs around the terminals encouraging travelers “if you are assaulted, harassed, or being forced to travel against your will, say something”—but it’s unclear if this applies to those assaulted by agents of the federal government.
Despite this, Washingtonians can be proud that in 2023, our legislature passed HB 1470, a bill that insists that if—as the federal judge told us last fall—we can’t close down private detention centers, as a state we can at least demand they abide by humane standards.
That same logic should now be applied to deportation flights. If the Biden administration remains intent on forcing Trumpist policies down our throats, King County and the Port of Seattle should follow the lead of the state legislature and demand decent conditions at our airports to ensure that, at the very least, the people forced to pass through our ports are not brutalized in the process.
This article has been edited for its inclusion in the UWCHR annual report.