Constantine wants to stop deportation flights, but can he?
Constantine wants to stop deportation flights, but can he? MANOP1984 / GETTY IMAGES

The Trump administration uses a long list of tools in their cruel campaign against migrants, but one of their most effective local tools might come as a surprise to Seattleites. We may be living in a sanctuary city but our government-owned airport, Boeing Field, is playing a central role in Trump’s deportation campaign.

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King County’s airport has been used to shuttle 34,400 people on their way to deportations in the last ten years, according to a new report from the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights (UWCHR). The researchers found that Boeing Field was used in some of the most troubling deportation cases, including to deport minors and to send people back to places like Mauritania where they could face enslavement. Some migrants sent through King County eventually ended up on a flight to Somalia in 2017 where they were allegedly kicked, beaten, placed in full-body restraints, and denied the use of a restroom.

King County Executive Dow Constantine appears to be troubled by this report. He signed a new executive order and called a press conference one day before this UW report was released to announce that the airport would no longer support ICE’s deportation activities. The move was cheered by migrant activists and appears to be the first time a local government has taken the fight against ICE to the use of an airport, but there remains a big glaring question: can Constantine actually stop these flights?

There's a number of reasons to be skeptical of Constantine’s latest promise.

The first reason? The county government refuses to give any estimate as to when they will actually be able to stop the flights, only that they are working on it.

The second reason? This isn’t the first time Constantine has made this promise. In June of last year Constantine publicly acknowledged these flights and said he was doing “everything in my power” to make sure Boeing Field “is not being used to perpetuate this brutality against people.” It’s not clear exactly what Constantine did in those intervening ten months. Constantine declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story or explain what work he had done since making his public promise.

But what is clear is that Boeing Field remained a hub for deportations. There were at least 1,761 detainees transported on 27 ICE flights at Boeing Field between Constantine’s public promise to do everything he could and December of 2018, the last date in the UW dataset, according to Phil Neff, a spokesperson for UWCHR.

Interestingly, Constantine’s office also repeatedly told UWCHR’s researchers following his public promise that “it wasn’t possible to stop the flights because of existing obligations they had to the federal government,” according to Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, the center’s director.

So what changed to suddenly make Constantine confident he could do something? Perhaps he found a new legal route or perhaps UWCHR’s damning report spurred the executive to take some action. Godoy said her organization had shared a draft of the report with Constantine’s office but had no idea that his office was going to preempt their report with their own announcement.

“We were not expecting the announcement [Tuesday]. We had no information about that. But the county had access to a draft version of our report,” Neff said.

Dow Constantine nows how to get on a bus.
Dow Constantine earlier this year. Lester Black

Godoy said she was "delighted" to see Constantine's order but cautioned that it offered no guarantees that the flights would end.

“I don’t think anybody thinks that this executive order in and of itself can stop the flights, they are expressing their goal to stop the flights. What those next steps are is hugely important,” Godoy said.

Godoy said if people actually want to see these flights stop they are going to need to remain engaged and hold the county to its word. So how exactly does Constantine think he can stop these flights?

Aim For the Lease Agreements

King County is not able to outright ban these flights, according to John Parrot, the airport’s director. But Parrot said at a press conference Tuesday that instead of outright banning the flights, the county is going to use the lease agreements these companies have to stop the practice of deporting people through Boeing Field.

“We’re not saying these flights can’t come in. We are saying those that have agreements with us have to abide by certain standards,” Parrot said Tuesday.

The county says they plan on renegotiating these lease agreements to explicitly prohibit these companies from “providing aeronautical or non-aeronautical services to enterprises engaged in the business of deporting immigration detainees…” according to Constantine’s executive order. This was one of the legal routes that the UWCHR authors directly pointed out as a viable method for curbing the flights, but will it actually work and how long will it take? That’s anyone’s guess.

Cameron Satterfield, a spokesperson for the airport, said there were around 150 such contracts at the airport that expire at a wide variety of times, from the end of this year to decades out into the future. Satterfield is not clear how soon they will be able to update the terms of the leases.

“It just depends on the language in the lease, so that is what we are now exploring is what we can do under the terms of the lease as they are and whether we will have to renegotiate later,” Satterfield.

Satterfield said he “wouldn’t even hazard a guess” as to how long before these flights are actually stopped.