A closed-circuit video camera zoomed in on the tarmac of Seattle's Boeing Field one recent afternoon, buffeted by 30-mile-an-hour gusts as it captured the arrival of a charter jet. The jet rolled to a stop alongside two buses. Behind their tinted windows, still invisible to the camera, were people waiting to be deported from the United States.

"Windy," muttered a woman watching the video feed on a projector screen. Struggling to make out the plane’s tail number from the shaky image, she stood up for a closer look.

On the screen, a stairway was wheeled over, and a cluster of men in bright yellow jackets descended from the plane. Another man stepped out of an SUV that partly blocked the foot of the stairs from view. Soon the group lugged over black bags, opened them, and laid out something that looked like chains.

When detainees began emerging from the camera’s blind spot, their ankles, waists and wrists appeared to be shackled together, and they seemed unable to hold the handrails as they shuffled up the wet stairs in the wind.

"So dangerous," said another woman watching the video feed. People kept coming, and she and her partner kept count: "Seven ... eight ... nine ... ten ... eleven ... twelve." One by one, the hunched figures disappeared into the plane. After an hour, it was gone.

People board a deportation flight at King County International Airport. The original video image has been zoomed in on for greater clarity. Credit: Obtained by ProPublica

The observation room at Boeing Field offers what is arguably America’s best real-time window into our vast network of privately run deportation flights, a system that has generated troubling reports of passenger mistreatment and in-flight emergencies.

In 2017, passengers on a deportation flight to Somalia said they were left bound and shackled in their seats for 23 hours during a stopover, some forced to soil themselves because they were denied bathroom visits. A year later, the right landing gear collapsed as a plane carrying detainees touched down at an airport in Louisiana, sparking a fire on its wing, filling the cabin with the smell of burning rubber and sending shackled passengers racing toward the three functioning evacuation slides after another slide failed to deploy. The next year, a detainee at the same Louisiana airport tumbled from the top of the boarding stairs and was rushed to the hospital.

While news organizations have reported on some of these incidents aboard what the government calls ICE Air, key details about how the system works would still be hidden were it not for a group of researchers who are now part of the work inside the observation room.

The University of Washington Center for Human Rights has spent the past six years trying to shed light on deportation operations, even as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its contractors and subcontractors have taken steps that shield their activities from view. (ICE declined ProPublica’s requests for comment.) Now the human rights center is in close contact with the observers at Boeing Field, hoping their weekly vigil will yield new clues and drive further research.

Every scrap of information is hard won.

As the recent dramatic influx of immigrants has prompted a push among political leaders to accelerate expulsions, what Seattle's single shaky tarmac camera really shows is how little the public is allowed to know about the nation’s hidden deportation infrastructure.

The Washington human rights center’s investigation of ICE Air began in 2018 with a modest goal: to prove that deportation operations took place at King County International Airport, as Boeing Field is officially known. Liberal local officials had enacted various “sanctuary” policies to insulate their residents from then-President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigrants, but they were unaware (or could at least claim to be unaware) of ICE flights at the county-owned airport. “They all played dumb,” said Maru Mora Villalpando of the immigrant rights group La Resistencia. “All of them were like, ‘Wait, what, there are deportations happening here?’”

The center began gathering documents that proved it, and also hinted at the worldwide breadth of ICE Air's network. Their investigation grew. Through records requests to ICE, and after interventions by Washington's congressional delegation, researchers obtained an ICE Air database spanning eight years of global operations: 1.73 million passenger records from nearly 15,000 flights to and from 88 U.S. airports — Boeing Field indeed among them — and to 134 international airports in 119 countries around the world.

In April 2019, the center published this trove of raw data and a pair of reports cataloging a history of in-flight abuses and potential due process violations.

The Washington human rights center reports also mapped the layers of contractors and subcontractors that provide ICE with planes, security guards, in-flight nurses and access to local airports. “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,” the researchers wrote, “to a sprawling, semi-secret network of flights on privately-owned aircraft.” Their reports identified the charter companies by name.

A great majority of the deportation flights leaving Boeing Field were bound not for destinations overseas but for domestic ICE Air hubs closer to America’s southern border, over 1,000 miles away, where detainees could be placed on connecting flights to countries of origin. The Washington researchers showed that Boeing Field was a busy part of the network, having hosted close to 500 ICE Air flights since 2010, collecting landing fees as the government shipped off at least 34,400 people for deportation.

Confronted with these findings, King County Executive Dow Constantine issued an order designed to eventually make it impossible for ICE Air to get any ground support, such as refueling, at Boeing Field. The company providing these ground services to ICE, which had also been named in the center’s reports, decided to stop rather than wait until its contract came up for renewal. The flights suddenly ended. (The company, Clay Lacy Aviation, and its successor in Seattle, Modern Aviation, did not respond to requests for comment.)

A game of cat and mouse had begun, pitting the Trump administration — and later the Biden administration — against local sanctuary advocates.

First, ICE switched locations. It began charter operations out of a municipal airport in the small city of Yakima, located in the farming region about three hours east of Seattle.

But activists began showing up at the Yakima airfield, recording tail numbers and keeping count of people being deported.

Second, ICE changed its flight numbering system. The human rights center had disclosed in its 2019 report that it used the federally assigned prefix “RPN-” for “repatriate” to plug information into free flight-tracking websites and obtain a plane’s tail number and ownership. So ICE dropped the “RPN-” and adopted the call signs of its various charter companies.

Activists became more sophisticated. Thomas Cartwright, a retired financial executive in Ohio turned refugee advocate, figured out how to identify ICE Air missions by analyzing flight patterns, operators and airport pairs. He began to track charter planes by the dozens, enabling the human rights center to issue a 2022 report linking specific deportation flights to the sports teams and musical acts that chartered the same planes.

“I'm retired, and I really do need to retire," Cartwright said. "I don't know who's going to do it after me.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice proceeded with a lawsuit against Constantine, the King County executive, to restart ICE flights at Boeing Field. Announcing the suit in February 2020, then-Attorney General William Barr had called it “a significant escalation in the federal government’s efforts to confront the resistance of 'sanctuary cities.'"

A judge ruled against the county in March 2023, and ICE made preparations to return.

Signature Aviation, a ground-support company at Boeing Field with an $11.5 million new terminal building for its executive clients, agreed to service ICE Air out on a hard-to-see part of the tarmac. Two charter companies, iAero Airways and GlobalX, would do the flying. (None of the companies responded to ProPublica’s requests for comment.)

La Resistencia, the local immigrant rights group, responded by pressuring King County officials to set up a viewing area. The county hastily opened a conference room and closed-circuit video feed for observers.

Students from the University of Washington protest Signature Aviation at King County International Airport. Signature services ICE deportation flights at the airfield. Credit: Jovelle Tamayo, special to ProPublica

On May 2, according to a spreadsheet kept by the observers, a white Boeing 737 with the tail number N802TJ arrived from Phoenix. The plane was known as the Straight Talk Express when used on Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, photos and news reports from the time show. On this day iAero was using it for a deportation flight. ICE Air was back.

Volunteers now observe deportation flights every week at Boeing Field, usually on Tuesday mornings.

Coordinating their efforts along with La Resistencia’s Maru Mora Villalpando is Stan Shikuma, a 70-year-old retired nurse and the co-president of the civil liberties group Tsuru for Solidarity.

“Tsuru” means “crane” in Japanese. The group consists of Japanese American survivors of U.S. incarceration camps during World War II and their descendants. They first organized to protest what they saw as similar mass camps for immigrant families during the Trump administration. One, in Dilley, Texas, was just 45 minutes down the road from Crystal City, Texas, the site of an infamous camp that housed Japanese American families. In 2019, the group that would become Tsuru led a large rally outside the Dilley detention center, giving speeches and playing taiko drums and stringing tens of thousands of origami paper cranes along the fence. The cranes became their symbol. They rallied under the cry “Stop Repeating History!”

At Boeing Field, the volunteers record tail numbers and keep a count of how many people get on and off each plane. The observations can serve as “a check on ICE in case they do put out numbers,” Shikuma says. “If they say, ‘We’ve only deported 25 people in the last two months,’ we can say, ‘Well, we counted 85 in the last two weeks.’”

First image: Maru Mora Villalpando, leader of La Resistencia, views a deportation flight on a live feed. Second image: Stan Shikuma, left, and Margaret Sekijima observe a departure, recording the number of people they see board the plane. Credit: Jovelle Tamayo, special to ProPublica

The second goal, Shikuma says, is to "let the people on the plane know that we're out here and that someone cares." In this effort, the groups, hidden away as they are in the observation room, have been less successful.

When Shikuma is on duty, he sits with one or two other observers in the conference room and stares intently at the closed-circuit video screen on the wall. He sips coffee and checks FlightAware, a popular plane tracking app, on his phone. He watches the buses roll in from the 1,575-bed Northwest ICE Processing Center in nearby Tacoma, run by private-prison contractor The Geo Group.

After the ICE Air flight arrives, usually from Phoenix but sometimes Las Vegas, San Antonio or El Paso, Shikuma marks in his notebook the time, the plane’s tail number, how many detainees exit and how many board.

Planes meet buses behind a large hangar, almost entirely out of view from a perimeter road. There are often three buses, but only two of them, Shikuma said, ever unload passengers. The third parks along a fence line, blocking any remaining view from the road. While the county's closed-circuit camera can still capture the boarding process, the positioning of the SUV and two passenger buses means that detainees are generally visible on the camera only for the seconds it takes them to ascend the stairs.

Twice in recent months volunteers witnessed what they considered unusual activity during boardings on the tarmac, prompting the human rights center to request records of internal ICE documentation on those two flights under the Freedom of Information Act.

Activists say that King County, despite its left-leaning reputation, has been a more reluctant partner in keeping tabs on deportation flights than was Yakima, which had regularly shared passenger tallies.

But Cameron Satterfield, a county spokesperson, said officials are doing what they can within a limited set of options. “We have a federal judge saying, ‘No, this is a public airport,’” he told ProPublica.

The county logs ICE Air’s arrivals and departures on its website, though the page was missing for weeks this winter after an update. Local officials have been unable to obtain passenger data from ICE, not even a head count. “They have told us: You can send a FOIA request,” Satterfield said.

This means that the only practical way to get numbers is the volunteers’ flight-by-flight paper tally. In 2022, ICE's average processing time for what it deems "complex" requests hit a record high: 186 days. At the end of that year, it had a backlog of 16,902 unresolved cases, a fourfold jump from 2021.

ProPublica’s review of deportation videos posted online by ICE shows what a difference the unvarnished view from Boeing Field can make. The agency began routinely posting the productions in May.

The 97 videos ProPublica examined, ranging in length from 22 seconds to almost 3 minutes, show signs of careful framing and editing. While detainees are commonly shown climbing the steps in handcuffs and the waist chains that secure them, the videos often cut to a new shot before leg shackles can make an appearance. When leg shackles are visible, they are typically out of focus, discernible only if you know to look for them.

It is common on ICE Air to place passengers in five-point restraints — wrists, ankles, and waists in chains — even as the agency’s own statistics show that less than half of the people deported in 2023 had any kind of criminal conviction, let alone for serious felonies that could suggest a possible risk to others on board.

Carrier names and tail numbers are blurred or absent in the videos, consistent with tail-number redactions in documents the Washington human rights center has gradually received from ICE in the years after its 2019 reports. The agency cites an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act protecting records that would reveal "techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions" or "could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law."

In this outtake from a June 2023 video released by ICE of a deportation flight from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Guatemala, people are filmed out of focus, making it difficult to see any leg shackles. Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The agency did not respond when asked by ProPublica how disclosing tail numbers could pose such risks, nor when asked to explain the use of five-point restraints. When the California news organization Capital & Main wrote in 2021 about ICE flights that went badly, it quoted a spokesperson saying the agency required safety reports from flight brokers and that “ICE retains the ability to hold the vendor accountable if there are performance issues.”

The spokesperson also told Capital & Main that the agency “utilizes restraints only when necessary for the safety and security of the detainee passengers, flight crew, and the aircraft.”

What ICE’s online videos don't show is revealing in its own right. In spring 2023, the center obtained a series of ICE Air incident reports detailing various accidents during charter operations, including the one in which a detainee in Alexandria, Louisiana, tumbled down the boarding stairs. Agency investigators recommended that contractors and subcontractors avoid such accidents in the future by placing a guard midway up the stairs to help detainees board and to catch any who lose their balance.

Yet in most of the ICE Air videos, including 32 of the 33 shot over the last year at the Louisiana airport where the man fell, ICE's contractors did not heed the investigators’ suggestion.

At Boeing Field, observers have documented the same practices. Week after week, rain or shine, including the recent gusty day when the tarmac camera shook in 30-mile-an-hour winds, chained detainees continue to climb aboard the planes alone.

On a calmer day this winter, Shikuma shared the observation room with Mora Villalpando and with fellow Tsuru volunteer Margaret Sekijima. FlightAware showed an inbound Airbus A320 operated by the ICE Air subcontractor GlobalX. Buses from the detention center, which normally arrive well in advance, had yet to appear on the screen. “Very unusual,” Shikuma said. “I wonder if they've changed up the protocol."

A few weeks prior, Mora Villalpando had led a group of protestors who intercepted the buses outside the gates of the airport, waving at the detainees inside and unfurling a banner that read "You are not alone" in three languages spoken by recent groups of Northwest detainees: English, Spanish and Punjabi.

Minutes later, two buses traversed the video frame from left to right. A young woman burst into the room. “They changed the entrance and came from the north!” she said. She was a student from the University of Washington, there to lead a demonstration in front of Signature Aviation’s gleaming terminal building. “I’m going to go round up the troops.”

The Airbus landed. The observers took down its tail number. They counted 29 detainees getting on, zero getting off.

Shikuma and Mora Villalpando went outside to join the protesters. Sekijima stayed in the conference room, her expression tight, her eyes on the screen until the plane left for El Paso, its next destination in ICE Air’s endless loop of deportation flights.

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