More than 650 undocumented immigrants have passed through the Yakima Air Terminal at McAllister Field since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started using the airport on May 7.

ICE had previously used Boeing Field in Seattle for its operations in Washington state. But on April 23, King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order saying it would not support the flights, forcing ICE to move its operations to Yakima.

Public records provided by the city of Yakima show that flights have happened at least twice each week, on Tuesdays and either Saturday or Sunday. From May 7 through July 2, a total of 599 undocumented individuals arrived on flights to Yakima and were bused to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. An additional 650 individuals were bused from Tacoma and flown to other sites from Yakima.

Yakima City Manager Cliff Moore, in a July 3 memo to the City Council, noted that all flights originate in the U.S. Southwest and are met by buses coming from the federal detention center in Tacoma. Flights to Yakima have arrived from Houston, Denver and Mesa, Ariz. Flights from Yakima have landed in Las Vegas and Mesa, according to information provided in the public records.

In most cases, people on the buses are transferred to the plane, and those who arrive on the plane are transferred to the buses. Moore noted that on some occasions either the plane or the bus arrived empty. The frequency of the flights is based on ICE’s needs rather than a specific schedule, Moore said.

Moore, who has observed the activity at the airport, estimated that 30 percent of those being transported are women and that most detainees appeared to be in their 20s or 30s.

What happens to people bused to Tacoma or put on planes is not clear, based on the documents. The city’s information does not show the alleged crimes or reasons for those being transported.

The presence of ICE at the airport has led to increased fear in the Hispanic community, with several members speaking out at recent City Council meetings and saying their families will not leave the house or go anywhere near the airport, saying that the presence of ICE does not mesh with the friendly environment and family-oriented values of Yakima.

In a memo to the City Council, Moore said he was told by ICE officials that the activity at McAllister Field would not lead to increased ICE enforcement operations in the community.

Several council members have voiced concerns, asking what the City Council can do and what repercussions could occur from flouting the federal government. One of the questions centers on whether the city could possibly lose federal funding for airport improvements if the council attempts to prohibit the flights like King County did. The topic of ICE flights will come up at Tuesday’s City Council meeting as part of a report from the city manager.

Meanwhile, documents indicate that Yakima will continue to serve the flights for the time being, given its federal funding and contractual obligations to airport operators.

“The city will continue to comply with federal law and meet its contractual obligations,” an official city statement regarding the ICE detainee flights said. “Doing otherwise could place the city in jeopardy of losing critical ... funding (more than $19 million since 2010) used to improve the safety and operational readiness of the Yakima airport, put the city in conflict with federal law, and violate other contractual obligations of the city.”

What’s been going on?

Constantine’s April 23 order notes that King County upholds the fundamental, self-evident truth that all people are created equal, while embracing the basic American values that the nation is one of opportunity for all.

“Immigrants and refugees are welcome in King County, and our region has acted decisively to become more inclusive,” the order states.

King County already had set in place policies that said it would not collaborate with ICE detention efforts without valid court orders. Those policies covered correctional facilities, for example.

The executive order notes that city leadership first became aware that ICE was using the airport to transport immigration detainees in 2018. In April of this year, a University of Washington Center for Human Rights report said more than 34,000 detainees had been transported from Boeing Field in the past eight years.

At Boeing Field, the three fixed-base operators — the companies that help fuel and land planes — decided not to provide ground service to ICE flights after Constantine announced the decision to withdraw support. The order notes that none of the ICE charter flights had specifically been authorized to conduct business at the airport. The order also references research that had shown transportation of detainees could lead to human rights abuses not consistent with King County values.

“Deportations raise deeply troubling human rights concerns, which are inconsistent with the values of King County, including separations of families, increases in racial disproportionality in policing, deportations of people into unsafe situations in other countries and constitutional concerns of due process,” the order noted.

Bryan Wilcox, the acting ICE field director of enforcement and removal operations in Seattle, said that ICE chose Yakima’s airport after he asked several other airports, which refused. Yakima’s airport and jail had been used in 2016 to transport and detain a large group of undocumented Haitians, so Wilcox knew the airport had the capacity for ICE-chartered flights.

Wilcox said that a vast majority of the 599 people bused into Tacoma are asylum seekers, who will wait for their hearings at the detention center. Those who are bused and flown out are either individuals with criminal convictions or pending criminal charges, or those who have been denied asylum, he said.

Wilcox confirmed that some of the people flying out of Yakima will eventually be deported to their home countries. Flights also are being used to transport asylum seekers and other immigrants to important court hearings and in some cases, to be closer to their families, said Tanya Roman, the ICE spokeswoman for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

ICE could not immediately provide data on how many of the people coming into and out of Yakima’s airport had criminal convictions or pending charges. ICE also could not say how many of its flights are used to take immigrants to court hearings or to be closer to families.

Roman said she knows those numbers for each individual flight but that data is not easily available at the local level and would require a Freedom of Information Act request for disclosure. She offered the following statement on who is being transported.

“ICE prioritizes its enforcement resources on individuals who pose the greatest threat to national security, public safety and border security,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

Behind the scenes

The U.S. Department of Transportation is responsible for administering federal laws relating to the operation of air carriers and airports.

On May 1, the department sent a letter to Constantine, saying that King County had an obligation to service the ICE flights since Boeing Field is a public airport that received more than $21 million in federal improvement program grants since 2012.

The letter also pointed to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, noting that federal law prohibits withholding services from flights that carry out immigration operations.

“I encourage you to revisit the order to ensure that the county and the airport remain in compliance with federal law,” wrote Steven Bradbury, general counsel for the department.

Roman noted that the switch to McAllister Field came at a significantly higher cost, financially and in travel time for detainees.

Moore said ICE is working to “normalize” the relationship with King County. But a conversation he had June 3 with Rachel Smith, a King County deputy executive, indicated that resolution might still be some time in coming.

“Ms. Smith stated that King County was not planning to respond to the May 1, 2019, letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation and she asserted that King County does not feel that they are in danger of becoming ineligible for future FAA grants, nor do they expect to have to pay back previous grants,” Moore wrote.

Moore said he has had city legal staff compare Yakima’s existing long-term contracts with those King County had with its fixed base operators. Staff concluded that flights transporting the ICE detainees should be allowed to use the airport so long as all proper notification protocols are followed.

ICE has to give the airport at least 24 hours’ notice of any ICE-chartered flight, which Moore said the agency has done.

Moore wrote in his memo to council that ICE had informed him that some of the Mexican nationals deported would be walked across the border into the Mexican port of entry at Juarez and then either would be set free or turned over to the custody of Mexican officials, Moore said.

“ICE would not say what the exact process would be,” he wrote.

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