Fewer detainees are flying in and out of Yakima on flights chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this year compared to last. The flights, which have been a source of local controversy, likely will continue on a weekly basis through the start of 2021.
The flights continue to operate out of the Yakima Air Terminal at McAllister Field amid the COVID-19 pandemic, transporting people from the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, also known as the Northwest Detention Center.
From January through July 20, 28 flights chartered through Swift Air have flown in and out of Yakima. Flights have arrived mainly from Mesa, Ariz., but also from Denver and Las Vegas, and generally departed to Las Vegas, but also to Mesa and El Paso, Texas. People arrived from or were transported to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
More than 100 detainees have arrived on flights coming into the airport and at least 971 have flown out this year, according to estimates kept by airport staff.
Most flights have touched down on Tuesdays, though a few flights also have arrived on Mondays and a Sunday.
Those estimates are slightly lower than numbers logged by the Yakima Immigrant Response Network, a Yakima County-based group of volunteers working to support immigrant communities throughout the Yakima Valley. Data logged by YIRN estimates at least 169 detainees have deplaned and boarded buses to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma and about 1,029 detainees have arrived from the Northwest Detention Center and then boarded the planes.
The numbers for the seven-month period from January through July are much lower than the period from May 7 through November 2019, when the flights started. During the initial seven months, YIRN estimated more than 2,850 people were transported to or from the Yakima airport.
On its website, ICE notes the pandemic has changed some of its operations, including the number of those detained in facilities nationwide and newly implemented screening procedures to protect staff and detainees from COVID-19, which could have affected those numbers.
“The health, welfare and safety of detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” ICE’s website said.
ICE started chartering flights through Yakima’s airport on May 7, 2019, after fixed base operators at Boeing Field in Seattle stopped servicing the flights following an executive order from King County’s Dow Constantine.
The U.S. Justice Department sued King County in February to move the flights back to Boeing Field, but the jury trial — currently slated for eight days — isn’t scheduled to start until mid-February 2021. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, cited the Constitution’s supremacy clause and federal law that prohibits counties from discriminating against federal contractors or obstructing the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
The city of Yakima rejected taking steps similar to King County’s last year, with city officials citing concerns that prohibiting the flights could impact the airport’s federal grant funding and open the city to litigation.
ICE has cited drawbacks to operating out of Yakima’s airport, including longer travel times and possible problems with inclement weather in traversing mountain passes during winter months. The agency declined to say whether it has searched for an alternative operations center, citing the pending litigation, but offered the following statement.
“State and local efforts thwarting ICE operations serve only to create additional security concerns and add significant delays and costs to U.S. taxpayers,” the agency said. “ICE maintains that cooperation by local officials is an indispensable component of promoting public safety.”
Due to COVID-19, Yakima’s airport has temporarily suspended access to its maintenance facility, which the Yakima Immigrant Response Network used to observe the flights. The network has shifted its vigils to the parking lot of Valley Lock and Key on Washington Avenue, where a small number of members continue to record their observations of the flights.
“We are heartbroken as each plane lifts into the air, carrying people away from their dreams, and wonder how the undocumented population on the whole can be labeled ‘essential’ and ‘illegal’,” said Michele Nelson Janke, a member of YIRN.
Airport Administrator Rob Peterson said the group has been understanding of the city’s measures to protect people and staff from COVID-19.
“The public viewings of the aircraft operations can be conducted outside the airport’s security fence as long as it doesn’t interfere with airport operations,” Peterson said.
ICE’s website emphasized that the agency is not carrying out enforcement operations near health care facilities, including hospitals, doctor’s offices and accredited health clinics, “except in the most extraordinary circumstances.”
“Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement,” ICE’s website says.
Starting in March, ICE convened a working group of medical professionals, disease control specialists, detention experts and field operators and used guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate whom among its detained population would be at higher risk of contracting the virus.
That evaluation led to more than 900 detainees nationwide being released to await proceedings. The agency’s detained population has dropped by more than 7,000 people since March 1 over last year at this time, the agency’s website noted.
The agency’s website said ICE’s Occupational Safety and Health Unit has worked to improve social distancing and use of personal protective equipment when appropriate, drawing from a pandemic workforce protection plan last updated in May 2017. ICE screens new detainees and isolates those with fever or respiratory problems. Agents also consult with local health departments to assess the need for testing and monitoring, with testing in compliance with CDC guidelines, the agency said.
Janke, the YIRN member, said those statements don’t match with what members have witnessed. Janke said she first observed detainees wearing masks “late in the game” on flights in May and June. Members also noticed inconsistent use of masks and personal protective equipment by agents, who wore the protective gear only when moving detainees to the airplane, Janke said.
While the Federal Aviation Administration governs personal protective equipment being provided to passengers and safety standards, each airline retains some discretion over how to implement the guidance.
iAero Airways, the charter airline encompassing the Swift Air flights, did not respond to comment about their sanitation and social distancing measures prior to publication of this story.
SEATTLE — Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday she had received confirmation that U.S. agents had left the area after being sent to Seattle last week to protect federal buildings amid lingering unrest over the police killing of George Floyd.
Durkan, Gov. Jay Inslee and other local leaders said in a joint news release that the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol Tactical Unit had demobilized. Durkan, Inslee and others had expressed concerns over the deployment of federal forces to Washington state without consulting or seeking consent from local officials.
On Friday they sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Brian Moran, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. department of Homeland Security seeking clarification on the intended scope of the action. Officials did not say why the federal agents decided to leave.
“This demobilization means Washingtonians no longer have to worry about the White House’s aim to provoke confrontation and undermine peaceful protests,” Inslee said.
Durkan called the president’s actions “to target and ‘dominate’ Democratic cities through the use of federal forces” chilling.
“It has increased violence in Portland, Seattle and other cities across the country, which was what the president intended,” the mayor said. “We will continue to heed this moment in history and to work with the community to make systemic and generational changes to make Seattle more just.”
The agents arrived Thursday after businesses in Seattle were vandalized in the downtown area and in the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood. Last month, protesters set up an occupied protest zone that stretched for several blocks in the neighborhood. That lasted for about two weeks until authorities returned in force and cleared it on July 1.
Protesters over the weekend remained near a Seattle police precinct in that area. Police later declared it a riot and made arrests but the police chief said she hadn’t seen any U.S. agents.
Federal agents sent to Portland have been using tear gas, pepper balls and stun grenades on people outside a federal courthouse who have been protesting their presence and police brutality. Protesters have tried to tear down a fence erected to protect the building, set fires and hurled fireworks and other objects at the building and at agents.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty on Monday asked Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for a meeting to discuss a cease-fire and their desire for the removal of the extra federal agents.
Yakima County reported 60 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, with two additional deaths.
The cases bring the county total since mid-March to 10,255. The death toll is 193.
Hospitalizations went down overnight, from 37 countywide Monday to 33 Tuesday. Three individuals were intubated.
An additional 106 people had recovered from the virus as of Tuesday, for a total of 7,526.
The county recorded 81 new cases Monday and 43 Sunday, according to the Yakima Health District.
A report by the state Department of Health on statewide COVID-19 patterns found Tuesday that Yakima County is among a small group of counties with downward trends in new cases. Still, the rate of positive tests in Eastern Washington remains high, which the study said “is expected when COVID-19 exposure is driving case counts more than changes in test availability.”
The study developed in partnership with the Institute for Disease Modeling, Microsoft and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, also found that statewide, the spread of the virus is above 1.0 — meaning for each positive case, more than one additional person is exposed to the virus.
In short, the virus continues to grow.
In neighboring Klickitat County, the 100th confirmed case of COVID-19 was recorded Monday, according to a news release from the local health district.
Kittitas County is experiencing outbreaks in two long-term care facilities: Pacifica and Prestige Post-Acute and Rehab. Pacifica had 17 positive cases among residents, including four deaths to date, as well as six staff who tested positive for the virus.
At Prestige, 48 residents tested positive for COVID-19, including eight who died. Another 41 staff members are COVID-19-positve. The Kittitas County Incident Management Team is working with the centers to address the outbreaks.
The Kittitas County Health Department also reported Tuesday that all test results for individuals at Prestige Senior Living at Hearthstone came back negative, and a previous outbreak at Meadows Place was resolved after two staff members who previously tested positive recovered from the virus.