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Volunteers watch as immigrants are deported out of King County

Four people, some wearing masks, take notes and photos while watching a plane taxing on a large TV screen.
Lilly Ana Fowler
Activist Stan Shikuma and volunteers from the Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice Northwest count white plastic bags of belongings are placed on the tarmac next to an airplane used for ICE deportation flights.

A little after 8 a.m., activist Stan Shikuma is getting on his bike to ride from South Seattle to King County International Airport, known as Boeing Field. He uses a flight tracker to find out when a deportation flight is landing. The airline is usually iAero Airways. It contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Shikuma, a retired nurse, is wearing a black t-shirt that on the back reads “NO MORE U.S. CONCENTRATION CAMPS."

He says the detention of immigrants by ICE reminds him of how his Japanese American family was held in internment camps.

"There's no sentence like, they don't know how long they'll be there," Shikuma said in an interview at his home.

Like his family members, he says, the immigrants have an indefinite sentence, even though they aren't in detention because they’ve committed a crime.

"Could be a week, it could be a year, and no one can tell them which," Shikuma continued.

After a four-year hiatus, immigrants are being deported out of Boeing Field again because of a court ruling. Each week, community members are watching as detainees at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma are taken to King County’s airport to be put on a deportation flight. They’re hoping to call attention to the mistreatment of deportees and ultimately, once again, put an end to the deportation flights. Approximately 16 deportation flights have left from Boeing Field since May.

In the conference room at Boeing Field, King County officials have set up two screens so the public can watch the flights. One screen provides a wide angle view of the runway. The other is zoomed in.

Shikuma instructs several volunteers from the Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice Northwest how to count the people getting on and off the plane.

"If we can get it broken down into male and female, that's better," Shikuma tells the volunteers.  

They will share the information with the University of Washington Center for Human Rights. The center’s 2019 report said nearly 35,000 immigrants had been deported from Boeing Field over eight years. That led to the temporary ban on deportation flights from here.

Shikuma tells the volunteers what they’ll see once the plane comes in.

"So the vested people in yellow, I think are all the guards that come off of the plane. And the people in black are all from ICE Northwest Detention Center," he explained.

On another morning, Wendy Pantoja is in Tacoma at 6 a.m., walking along the train tracks that run in front of the Northwest ICE Processing Center. She’s a divorced mom originally from Mexico. She’s at the detention center as a member of the activist group La Resistencia. She’s trying to get a head count on her end of detainees boarding the bus bound for Boeing Field.

"Sometimes when we see them we hold up signs so we can tell them they’re not alone," Pantoja said in Spanish.

That little bit of emotional support is important, she says, because the detainees are separated from their families. But sometimes Pantoja misses them because the bus has left early to go tothe Yakima airportinstead. That’s 150 miles from the detention center.

Two TV screens show a close up and wide angle view of a blue and white plane near a runway.
Lilly Ana Fowler
King County officials have set up two screens at Boeing Field so the public can watch the flights. Volunteers count the number of immigrants getting on and off the plane and share the information with the University of Washington Center for Human Rights.

Back at Boeing Field, after hours of waiting, the volunteers finally see the ICE flight land. They’re close enough to smell the engine’s fumes.

"Look, there it is," one volunteer shouts. "You can smell it too." 

They’ll estimate how many are being deported by counting the white plastic bags of belongings placed on the tarmac.

"I don't think they give more than one bag per person," Shikuma says.

The detainees who will be walking up to the plane are in shackles, with their hands tied and connected to a chain around their waist.

"They can't use the railing and they can't swing their arms," he says.

Then they start counting.

Watching this scene, Jewish Coalition member Ruth Egger is reminded of her family’s own history.  

"I can't help but think about the Holocaust, putting them on the bus, the trains," Eggers says to the other volunteers.  

In the end, they count more than 30 people getting on the deportation flight, bound first for Phoenix. They aren’t sure where the detainees will go next.

"We could be sending them to a terrible existence," Eggers says.

The few immigrants who got off the plane will be taken to the detention center in Tacoma. There they’ll wait for their immigration case to be resolved, or be deported.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to