Officials in Washington state are trying to prevent an airfield being used for controversial deportation flights – some of them instances of alleged human rights abuses – operated by private contractors hired by US immigration authorities.
As a new report revealed the extent of a semi-secret network of charters used by the US immigration and customs enforcement agency, commonly referred to as ICE, to deport people across the world, officials here became the first jurisdiction in the country to try and prevent their facility being utilised
Since 2010, King County International Airport, located south of Seattle and often referred to as Boeing Field, has been used to deport at least 34,000 migrants on a total of 450 flights, according to new research.
Those deportees were among the 1.7m people deported from 88 US cities during that period, and dropped off in 119 countries.
A number of the flights are said to have subjected those being deported to humiliating and abusive treatment. In one notorious case, more than 90 Somali men and women were allegedly handcuffed on a plane for almost 48 hours.
After siting on the tarmac at an airport in Senegal, where some claimed they were assaulted and forced to urinate in their seats, they were returned to the US for logistical reasons.
This week, authorities in King County, which includes the cities of Seattle and Bellevue and which owns Boeing Field, said they would no longer tolerate their facility being used for deportation flights.
“We are a community that is open to all,” Rachel Smith, King County’s deputy executive, told The Independent. “We absolutely think that the community is behind us on this.”
Ms Smith said stopping the airfield from being used for such flights was not straightforward. When ownership of the federally-constructed facility was transferred to King County at the conclusion of World War II, one of the conditions was that the US government had the right to make use of it.
Ms Smith said US customs and border protection officials were not obliged to provide flight manifests to local officials. Indeed, she said King County only became aware the airfield was being used by ICE-contracted deportation flights eight months ago.
Now, authorities are trying to end such flights by revising all new leases with so-called fixed base operators, companies that provide services such as the cleaning of toilets, ramps and refuelling. New leases, she said, would not permit those operators to provide services to deportation flights.
The report, Hidden in Plain Sight: ICE Air and the Machinery of Mass Deportation, details an extensive network of flights, often operating without the knowledge of those who live in the neighhourhoods.
“Deportation relies on a complex network of public and private institutions, but in most cases its final phase is carried out, at least in part, aboard a plane,” it says. “Over the past decade, the institutional infrastructure behind these flights has shifted from a government operation run by the US Marshals Service on government planes, to a sprawling, semi-secret network of flights on privately-owned aircraft chartered by ICE.”
One of the researchers, Phill Neff, said there were a number of reported instances of flights that had resulted in “truly horrendous abuse” of detainees. He added: “And these are just the cases we know about”.
Maru Mora Villalpando, a Seattle-based activist with the immigration rights group La Resistencia, said her team had been in touch with one of the men deported to Somalia in December 2017, and who had called them after the plane returned to Miami. Some the passengers filed a class action lawsuit, accusing ICE of “inhumane conditions and egregious abuse”.
“He said they had sat in the plane for hours. When some people asked why, they were punched,” she said. “He said it was like hell in the sky.”
The report said the two most frequently used private companies, were based in Florida and Arizona. Neither of those charter firms responded to enquiries on Thursday.
ICE failed to respond to specific questions about allegations of human rights abuses on flights it operated.
In a statement regarding the 2017 flight to Somalia, it said 61 of the 92 people on board were convicted criminals. It claimed those offences ranged from aggravated assault with a weapon, to rape.
“Detainees were fed at regular intervals to include the providing of extra snacks and drinks,” it said.
“Lavatories were functional and serviced the entire duration of the trip. The allegations of ICE mistreatment onboard the Somali flight are categorically false.”