When Yakima resident Celena Barajas approached the Yakima City Council at Tuesday’s meeting, she was poised. She carried herself with dignity and purpose.
But within moments, she was in tears.
Barajas, a student at Yakima Valley College, said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency had arrested and detained her father. The protocols they used, she said, were inhumane.
She added that many who flee to the United States do so to escape violence and terror, with the hope for a better life. That dream, for her father, ended with his deportation.
“After he was deported,” she said. “He died. Alone. In Mexico.”
Barajas was one of nine people who asked the Yakima City Council on Tuesday to stop ICE-coordinated transports of undocumented detainees from the city’s airport.
“There are people in this community who are going through the same emotions as I am,” Barajas said. “We feel we are not protected. Please consider stopping this.”
The first known ICE-chartered transport of undocumented immigrants at the Yakima Air Terminal at McAllister Field happened at the beginning of May, with notice from ICE officials that the airport would continue to be used as a landing site.
No one at Tuesday’s meeting spoke in favor of allowing ICE to operate from the airport.
ICE in Yakima
The Yakima County jail has a long-standing contract with ICE to detain undocumented immigrants until they are taken to the federal detention center in Tacoma.
About 50 protesters gathered outside the jail in April, calling for an end to that agreement and the release of dozens of undocumented individuals incarcerated within the walls. They had walked over from the Red Lion Hotel, where a three-day Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network conference had just ended.
The protest ended peacefully, with jail staff refusing to release the incarcerated and with protestors packing up their signs and going home.
But then, in late April, King County officials decided they no longer wanted Boeing Field in Seattle to serve ICE-chartered flights. County Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order directing companies to stop service of charter flights operating on behalf of ICE.
So ICE came to Yakima.
On May 7, the first Swift Air jet arrived. The private charter flight carried 42 undocumented immigrants, who were bused to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, before 92 detainees boarded the plane before it departed.
By May 14, there had been an additional two flights, with more than 70 additional undocumented individuals loaded onto the government-chartered airliners.
Bryan Wilcox, an acting ICE field operations director, confirmed that Yakima’s airport would continue to be used for ICE-chartered flights. Yakima City Manager Cliff Moore said that the city had little recourse to ban the flights because the city’s contract with its fixed base operator, McCormick Air, requires the city to service government charters.
ICE spokeswoman Tanya Roman said in a written statement that the agency relies on the cooperation of local airports and airlines to “expeditiously remove dangerous criminals from our communities.” A news release highlighted 10 serious offenders removed from Washington since May 2014 as an example. Roman added that those removed are handled “humanely and in full compliance with domestic law.”
Those who spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting — several of whom had witnessed the transports — disagreed.
‘Not our values’
The Yakima Immigrant Response Network, a county-based group of volunteers working to support immigrant communities in the Yakima Valley, held banners during the May transports that read “Justice for all. We Care. Te Apoyamos.”
Noemi Sanchez, a community member who witnessed the transports and also spoke Tuesday, said the transports she had witnessed were “dehumanizing,” with detainees shackled and treated poorly and unacceptably.
Sanchez announced that members of the community are now terrified to go near the airport and that ICE operations don’t mesh with the community’s values.
“ICE is present in Yakima now, with boots on the ground,” she said. “Our community is terrified. This is not what Yakima is about.”
About 15 of the group’s members stood or sat quietly in the audience in solidarity as Janie Wright read a YIRN-proposed resolution they requested the council adopt.
That document noted that Yakima is a community mostly made up of immigrants, that the economy of the region relies largely on contributions of immigrants to agricultural, hospitality and industrial sectors, and that the city’s cultural life is enhanced by its immigrant communities, who are worthy of human rights, dignity and respect, Wright said.
“The city of Yakima must always remain a welcoming city for immigrants,” she said. “The use of the Yakima airport by Immigration and Customs Enforcement will create fear in the community and potentially damage our community’s reputation.”
Other individuals who spoke during public comment, several of whom had traveled from Ellensburg, cautioned that the tactics used by ICE officials when transporting detainees are not humane and that ICE officials are targeting asylum seekers and DACA recipients — not the dangerous, violent criminals ICE officials cited as a main reason for local cooperation.
Chants of “Shut it down! Shut it down!” echoed through the council chambers after the last person had spoken during public comment.
Mayor Kathy Coffey restored order with several sharp raps of her gavel.
Coffey invited members of the audience to stay for council discussion of the ICE flights, which she said would occur later in the meeting, if they could do so respectfully.
Many members of the public stayed. But the council discussion about the flights, during the “other business” section of the meeting, was short-lived.
Councilwoman Kay Funk motioned for the topic of the ICE flights to be added to the council’s agenda for the next regularly scheduled meeting. There was no council discussion. No one seconded.
And that was all.
Editorial note: This story has been updated to reflect that the YIRN-proposed resolution was read by Janie Wright.