Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they would prefer to move Yakima flights transporting detained immigrants back to King County, especially as winter approaches.

ICE started chartering flights through the Yakima Air Terminal at McAllister Field on May 7, after fixed base operators at Boeing Field in Seattle stopped servicing the flights following an executive order passed by King County’s Dow Constantine.

During a panel discussion on immigration issues at Yakima Valley College on Wednesday, Phil Neff, project coordinator for the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, said 35 ICE Air flights had passed through Yakima’s airport since May 7 and deported or transferred 1,542 people. An additional 1,103 people had been transported to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, he said.

Neff noted that ICE officials have said they aren’t able to transport as many people through Yakima as they were through Boeing Field, given distance and cost involved. Neff also said ICE officials are “shopping around” for other landing spots, given the upcoming winter and concerns about travel across mountain passes with passengers.

Paige Hughes, a spokesperson for ICE, told the Yakima Herald-Republic that the agency’s switch to McAllister Field had created “an increase in both the cost to taxpayers and travel time for detainees being transported.” She confirmed that safety during winter months for passengers is of concern and “yet another reason that King County executives should rethink their misguided actions.”

“ICE maintains that utilizing the King County International Airport is the best option,” Hughes said in a written statement. “This move has caused a significant increase in travel time for detainees being transported to and from the Seattle area, as well as logistical and safety issues for detainees being transported and ICE staff.”

Yakima city officials and the airport’s fixed base operator, McCormick Air, have said they are OK with servicing the flights. Former City Manager Cliff Moore shared concerns that refusing to do so would violate the airport’s federal obligations and could require the city to pay back more than $19 million in Federal Aviation Administration funding used for airport improvements.

Neff said King County has faced no repercussions for its decision to stop providing services for the ICE-chartered flights to date. He said the cities of Everett, Bellingham, and Portland refused when approached by ICE about using their airports.

“It’s clear that local jurisdictions can say no,” Neff said. “It’s easier if they haven’t started, but King County is an example that they can be stopped.”

More than 100 people attended the Diversity Series panel discussion, titled “Yakima’s Role in the Detention and Deportation Pipeline.” Other panelists were Alfredo Gonzalez Benitez, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, and Brenda Rodriguez Lopez, coordinator of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network-Eastern Washington Network.

In addition to discussion about the ICE-chartered flights, panelists shared updates about arrests happening at the state’s courthouses and legislative initiatives focused on immigrant rights.

Courthouse arrests

Rodriguez Lopez said her group has seen increasing numbers of arrests by ICE at the state’s courthouses, where people were apprehended after going in to resolve civil matters or pay traffic tickets, she said.

Rodriguez Lopez said that ICE noted in a January 2018 policy memo that courthouse arrests are on the rise, with the agency citing that the arrests were necessary as several local jurisdictions had stopped accepting ICE detainers. Since that memo, WAISN received 89 calls to its hotline reporting sightings of immigration activity inside or near courthouses in Yakima, Adams, Grant, Franklin, Okanogan, and Thurston counties, with most reported activity in Grant and Adams counties, she said.

ICE officials, typically in plain clothes and unmarked vehicles, will follow a person and call that person by name, Rodriguez Lopez said. If the person does not stop walking, the officials will surround the person and forcibly maneuver the person to the vehicles for transfer, she added.

“Under this administration, we have seen a shift, an increase in violence during the arrests,” Rodriguez Lopez said. “It’s important for us to realize this is no longer as usual.”

Rodriguez Lopez noted that officials who apprehended the group’s clients often did not have administrative or judicial warrants. She said the arrests have had a “chilling” effect in communities served by the group, with victims of domestic violence or other crimes unwilling to go to the courthouse to obtain protective orders or file reports and with others missing their court hearings because they are afraid of being arrested.

ICE has stated in news releases that it carries out its operations “humanely and in full compliance with domestic law” and does not carry out indiscriminate sweeps. Hughes said the decision of the many law enforcement agencies that no longer honor ICE detainers or release notification requests has required ICE to make arrests out in the community.

Hughes added in a written statement, “Courthouses are sometimes the only location that ICE can expect a fugitive/criminal alien to appear at a scheduled time, and courthouse visitors are typically screened upon entry to search for weapons and other contraband, so the safety risks for the arresting ICE officers and for the arrestee are substantially diminished.”

Hughes added that ICE holds officers “to the highest standards of professional conduct” and that those who have allegations against the agency should report those concerns to the Office of Inspector General Hotline at 1-800-323-8603.

“To suggest that the enforcement of federal immigration laws is somehow a human rights violation is irresponsible and reflects either a profound misunderstanding or willful mischaracterization of those laws and of the proper roles and responsibilities of the federal government and states and localities in ensuring that the laws are properly administered,” she said in her written statement.

Legislative updates

Gonzalez Benitez, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, shared information about county jails — including Yakima’s — placing administrative holds on apprehended immigrants when those people were eligible for release. Those holds stopped at the Yakima County jail after Columbia Legal Services filed a lawsuit.

Gonzalez Benitez said the Keep Washington Working Act, signed May 21 by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, mandated the end to all intergovernmental agreements between ICE and local agencies by 2021.

Yakima County officials have said they’ll abide by the provisions of that act, whereas Franklin, Benton and Spokane counties have said they’re not willing to change their policies, Gonzalez Benitez said. Columbia Legal Services will keep a close eye as the act takes effect, he added.

Rodriguez Lopez said the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is preparing a bill for the next legislative session in Olympia that would prohibit prosecutors, judges or court staff from sharing information with ICE or Border Patrol agents and that would require a judicial warrant for an arrest in the courthouse.

Calls to action

Noemi Sanchez, a member of the Yakima Immigrant Response Network who facilitated the panel discussion, encouraged members in the audience to call the Yakima County sheriff and the Yakima County commissioners and ask that Yakima end its agreements with ICE.

She encouraged people to attend a Nov. 5 Yakima City Council meeting to share their thoughts on a shift to a strong mayor form of government, which opponents have said will disenfranchise Latino voters, and to speak up against the airport’s continued servicing of the flights.

YIRN also will have training on Nov. 14, in which volunteers will learn how to accompany immigrants to court hearings, and raid response training, in which people will learn how to check-in should rumors of an ICE raid in the community surface. More information is available on the group’s website.

Editorial Note: This article has been updated to reflect that fixed base operators at Boeing Field in Seattle chose to stop servicing ICE-chartered flights following an executive order issued by King County's Dow Constantine. 

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.