ICE used sanctuary city airport to deport and transfer tens of thousands of immigration detainees
Despite being located in one of the nation’s most prominent sanctuary cities, Oakland International Airport served as the staging ground for nearly 1,000 flights chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement between 2010 and 2018, carrying detainees on their way to deportation or transfer between detention centers.
In total, the ICE Air operation flew nearly 43,000 people in and out of Oakland during that period. Almost 27,000 were being deported. The other 16,000 were being transferred, part of a detention and relocation system that advocates and immigration lawyers allege is designed to cut people off from legal and community support that could help them stay in the country.
Oakland city and airport officials wouldn’t say last week whether they knew about the flights. ICE transported 1,111 people through the Oakland airport in the seven months after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was castigated by President Donald Trump and then-acting ICE Director Thomas Homan for warning the public about immigration raids.
Between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, 4,127 Mexican nationals were flown from Oakland to San Diego, likely to be bused or walked across the border. That data comes from ICE’s Alien Repatriation Tracking System, which was obtained through a public records request by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights.
In the same time period, 2,541 people with ongoing cases were flown out of Oakland to one of three cities — Denver, Phoenix and San Diego — close to major ICE detention centers, but far from the Bay Area’s well-established network of free legal counsel.
ICE spokesperson Paul Prince told the Bay Area News Group the agency stopped chartering flights out of Oakland in October last year, though he declined to give further details.
While the Port of Oakland, which oversees the airport, didn’t collect fees from ICE, it is difficult to say whether it made money indirectly off the operation. Charter flights are tracked and serviced by private companies, which lease runways from the Port.
A spokeswoman for the Port, Keonnis Taylor, said Wednesday that the agency had been unaware of the ICE Air flights. The Port’s assistant director of Aviation, Kristi McKenney, asked the University of Washington for the ICE database on the same day this news organization did, according to an email obtained through a records request.
In separate emails, both Oakland City Attorney Spokesman Alex Katz and Schaaf’s Spokesman Justin Berton said their offices were “looking into” whether ICE Air violated the city’s policy to not cooperate with immigration enforcement operations.
The ICE database, which covers charter rather than commercial flights, didn’t have records showing any out of other Bay Area airports. San Jose International Airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said Friday afternoon that she was not aware of any ICE-contracted flights out of the airport. ICE Air lists San Francisco as one of the cities it uses; SFO officials could not be reached by press time.
Most Oakland ICE flights were operated by Swift Air, under call signs that began with the letters RPN, for “repatriation,” according to flight records provided to the Bay Area News Group by tracking service Flightradar24. The last of those flights left the airport on Oct. 2, 2018.
“If it did stop, it’s not because any local officials intervened,” Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said in a text message. She said she believed the ICE flights might have violated “our (sanctuary city) policy and our stated public and ethical position.”
Oakland declared itself a “sanctuary city” in November 2016, when it renewed its 1986 “City of Refuge” policy. That policy barred any city department, including the police department, to cooperate with the enforcement of federal civil immigration laws, and prohibited city money, resources or personnel to be used to “investigate, question, detect or apprehend” people whose only suspected crime was being in the country illegally.
In January 2018, the city also barred police from cooperating with ICE in criminal operations, and affirmed that “no City of Oakland resources” would go to any ICE action.
The University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights requested the ICE database as part of an investigation into the agency’s operations at Seattle’s King County International Airport, also known as Boeing Field. The day before the center published its report, King County announced it would work to ban the flights.
“King County talks about their very strong anti-trafficking policies, but they didn’t have records about what was happening with detainees,” said Phil Neff, a project coordinator with the Center for Human Rights researcher who worked on the project. “What kind of responsibility do airports have? How much oversight does ICE really have?”
Some people detained by ICE can be deported without speaking with a judge, if they are unable to convince an officer they have a “credible” or “reasonable” fear of persecution in their country of citizenship during a brief interview. Between 2010 and 2018, 5,754 people deported via the Oakland airport fell into one of those categories, according to ICE records.
ICE procedures, including how they transport people, tend to change without warning. A day after the last confirmed ICE flight out of Oakland, immigration attorneys arrived at 630 Sansome Street in San Francisco to speak with the officers managing their clients’ cases, only to be told the office was now in Stockton. It took days to get contact information, according to Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, executive director of Immigrant Legal Defense in Oakland.
Legal support, which many groups in the Bay Area offer, can make all the difference: A 2016 report by the American Immigration Counsel found ICE detainees with attorneys were twice as likely to win their deportation cases compared to those without.
Since the closure of detention centers in Richmond and Elk Grove in 2018, most people with cases in San Francisco immigration court are held either in Marysville’s Yuba County Jail, 40 miles north of Sacramento, or the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield. Some are sent much farther. In fiscal year 2018, 138 people with ongoing cases were transferred from Oakland to Denver and 765 were sent to Phoenix.
These distant detentions are possible because most San Francisco immigration court hearings are held over video chat. Attorneys are often in the courtroom with the judge instead of with their clients and may have never met them in person. Interpreters call into the courtroom on speakerphone, which is then relayed to detainees through the video chat. All of this makes it difficult for non-English speakers to understand the proceedings, or be understood.
“Half of our clients at any given time will be in Mesa Verde,” said Raha Jorjani, an immigration lawyer with the Alameda County Public Defenders’ Office. “Immigration cases require very fact-intensive investigations. You’re doing that under time pressure in increasingly hostile environments — and now, while you don’t even have access to your clients.”
Wolfe-Roubatis said her clients have been transferred to detention facilities in Denver, Seattle, and even Hawaii, though she didn’t know if they had been flown out of Oakland.
“Having clients moved around, and having both attorneys and families looking for them, is challenging logistically,” Wolfe-Roubatis said. “It causes additional emotional harm to people already worried about their loved ones.”
Staff writer Kaitlyn Bartley contributed to this story.
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