Justice Department Sues King County, Washington, for Banning Deportation Flights

SEATTLE (CN) – King County, Washington, is illegally prohibiting immigration deportation flights at county-owned Boeing Field, a suit filed Monday by the U.S. Justice Department claims.

The government is suing King County and Executive Dow Constantine to overturn the county’s executive order, announced in April 2019, that restricts Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter planes from using the airport.

ICE now uses an airport in Yakima, 150 miles east of Seattle, to transport immigrant detainees back to their home countries or to a detention center in Tacoma, Washington, according to immigration officials.

Boeing Field. (Photo by Bernstea via Wikipedia)

King County, which includes Seattle, is violating the Supremacy Clause by discriminating against ICE chartered planes and is improperly interfering with federal enforcement of immigration laws, according to the complaint.

“The Supremacy Clause and federal law do not allow King County to discriminate against those who contract with the United States, to regulate in a field where Congress has expressly preempted state and local regulation, or to impose obstacles to the enforcement of federal immigration law. Accordingly, the Airport EO [executive order] is unlawful and invalid,” the complaint states.

ICE has been using charter flights to remove immigrants in custody since 2006. Under the Airline Deregulation Act, local governments like King County cannot prohibit or restrict certain types of air transportation, officials say.

King County was the first jurisdiction in the country to restrict ICE flights, the county executive’s office said when announcing the ban in 2019.

The executive order instructs Boeing Field and the Facilities Management Division to ensure the airport does not support the “transportation and deportation of immigration detainees in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, either traveling within or arriving or departing the United States or its territories, ” according to the complaint.

All future leases and permits at the facility should also contain a prohibition against providing support for any enterprises engaged in deporting immigration detainees, the order says.

Around 34,000 people were transported in ICE-chartered deportation flights at Boeing Field from 2010 to 2018, according to a report issued by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights.

“Here in King County, we are a welcoming community that respects the rights of all people. My executive order seeks to make sure all those who do business with King County uphold the same values. Our goal is to ban flights of immigrant detainees from our publicly owned airport, and I hope members of Congress shine a light on this practice and how it is currently funded,” Constantine said last year when announcing the ban.

Both of Washington’s U.S. attorneys announced the suit at a press conference Monday in Seattle.

“King County doesn’t get to pick and choose which federal laws it wants to follow,” Brian Moran, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington said. 

“The federal government transferred Boeing Field to the county in 1948 – and the agreement states that the federal government retains the right to use the field at no cost.  King County is violating the law, the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, and the very agreement it signed to gain ownership of the airport,” Moran added.

William Hyslop, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington said that the “vast majority” of people being deported from Washington have committed crimes, which lead to their deportation.

“We don’t refuse to send a criminal defendant to another state to face charges – neither should we fail to return illegal aliens to their country of origin if they have committed crimes that make them inadmissible to the United States and a danger to our communities,” Hyslop said.

Attorney General William Barr also announced the suit Monday during a speech to the National Sheriff’s Association.

“It is no surprise that Trump and Barr are bullying King County for being a welcoming community that respects the rights of all people,” Constantine said in a statement about the suit. “Our ordinances rightly require that King County facilitate immigration enforcement directives only when accompanied by a valid court order. Mass deportations raise deeply troubling human rights concerns, including separation of families, racial disproportionality in policing, and constitutional issues of due process.” 

Constantine said the order was designed to make the county government’s practices “consistent” with the region’s values. 

“I am pleased to say local airport operators notified us that they would voluntarily no longer serve charters used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” he said. “We are already actively engaged in an administrative process with the FAA to resolve our differing interpretations. The Trump administration and Attorney General Barr chose to circumvent this work for the sake of grabbing headlines. The Justice Department initiated a legal fight over our regional airport rather than working with Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. We look forward to our day in court.”

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