By Ulya Aligulova | Photos Joseph Shaw

Construction of a new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility located at 40 Manson Libby Road in Scarborough is set to be completed in spring 2021. It will share the building with a Veteran’s Administration group that provides therapy and support to veterans. The news of the facility first broke in February 2020 when Bangor Daily News reported on an email they obtained, under the Freedom of Information Act, from Alisa Wofford, a leasing specialist with the U.S. General Services Administration, an agency that manages federal building contracts. “[T]his space will be low key and not brightly advertised as an ICE location,” Wofford wrote to other government officials. “The GSA property manager does not speculate that protests will be a problem for the vet center.” According to the email, ICE will process, fingerprint, and detain people suspected of immigration violations, keeping them in onsite holding rooms before transporting them in unmarked vans to an overnight detention facility elsewhere, if necessary.

At present, people apprehended by the agency and waiting for immigration court proceedings are generally held at the Cumberland County Jail before being moved out of state. According to ICE’s website, the nearest Enforcement and Removal Operations field office, whose area of responsibility includes Maine, is in Boston. However, in October 2019, the agency announced the opening of an administrative office in downtown Portland at One City Center, which also has one holding cell. The news of the two facilities came as the number of people arrested by ICE spiked across the country. In 2019, ICE apprehended over 1.1 million people, a rise of nearly 70% from the previous fiscal year. In 2020, the agency convicted nearly 400,000 people and deported over 185,000 noncitizens from the U.S.

Scarborough town officials were not aware of the plans for the facility before the Bangor Daily News broke the story. Josh Soley, the owner of the industrial building at 40 Manson Libby Road, signed a 15-year-lease with the GSA in April 2019. “This was a private transaction between a property owner and the federal government that complied with all the zoning requirements and the council doesn’t have any authority to approve or disapprove leases between the parties,” said Scarborough Town Council Chief Paul Johnson. “We’ve since changed our zoning laws so that overnight and detention facilities will no longer be allowed. The new zoning would also prevent this facility from expanding.”

Scarborough passed a Resolution Against Racial and Social Injustice last October. “I think this facility is in conflict with the resolution and doesn’t align with the vision and values of Scarborough,” Councilor John Anderson said. “If other towns across the state and country want to prevent this from happening then they need to change their zoning and make it clear that they don’t want facilities like ICE in their town. I think it was a lesson learned for us all that if you’re not specific in the zoning laws, things like this can happen.”

In March, the ACLU of Maine and two Portland-based immigrant rights groups, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP) and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic (RHRC) at the University of Maine School of Law, sued ICE for information about its detention activities in Maine. The lawsuit comes after several Freedom of Information Act requests by the groups went unanswered. “The reason we sought the information is that students at the RHRC and other immigration advocates have observed an increase in the number of immigrants in ICE custody being held at the Cumberland County Jail between June and December 2020,” said Qainat Khan, director of communications at ACLU Maine. “ICE has a history of operating in the shadows and a record of violating people’s constitutional rights. Across the country we’ve seen ICE ignore health precautions, leading to the COVID-19 infection rate up to 13 times greater than the general population. In Maine, ICE has used the Cumberland County Jail as a short-term holding facility for immigrants across New England, channeling them into other ICE detention facilities in the southern U.S. despite the known risk of such transfers. So the lawsuit is necessary to cast light on these activities because if we know what ICE is doing, we’re better able to resist its abuses,” he said.

“These are folks who have no connection with Maine, they’re coming here and being taken away – often in the middle of the night – and sent to detention centers in southern states that have really serious COVID-19 outbreaks,” said Julia Brown, advocacy and outreach director at ILAP, Maine’s only statewide provider of immigration legal aid.

“Detention is bad for communities. It’s not a proper response to immigration violations under civil immigration law. We’re concerned about more detentions that break up families and take parents away from kids. We don’t like the government being secretive about what they’re doing and evading accountability.”

Julia Brown

The FOIA lawsuit seeks records regarding ICE detention in Maine, including transfers of ICE detainees to and from Maine during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ICE’s plans to develop the holding facility in Scarborough. The suit alleges that ICE transfers to and from Cumberland County Jail dramatically increased between June and December 2020, despite ICE’s current COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements that prohibit transfers between facilities unless “necessary” for a limited number of reasons.

This practice exposed ICE detainees to an increased risk of COVID-19 from repeated transfers in unhygienic conditions and travel to regions with higher COVID-19 prevalence, as well as increasing the risk of introducing COVID-19 into Maine, the lawsuit adds. According to CATO Institute, a public policy research organization, the death rate in ICE immigration detention in fiscal year 2020 was 11.8 per 100,000 admissions, a 656% jump from fiscal year 2019.

Several grassroots organizations have shared their opposition to ICE’s presence and operations in Maine. De-ICE Maine is a coalition of activists that have been raising awareness about the new ICE facility in Scarborough and actively protesting its construction. “We’ve found that the overwhelming majority of the people in Scarborough didn’t know about this facility, including some state representatives and town councilors,” said De-ICE member Kelly Merill. “What we’ve come up with are basic demands of the organization, which are to get ICE out of the state, prevent cooperation with them, and to get driver licenses and state IDs for all residents. We have a three-pronged approach to the work which includes legislative advocacy, direct community support, and direct action to make these issues visible.”

De-ICE is pushing for a resolution from the town council to unanimously condemn the facility, in keeping with their anti-racism resolution issued in October, as well as ordinances preventing any cooperation with local officials or law enforcement. However, a new bill (ME LD1378) introduced in early April may make that impossible. The bill, called “An Act To Facilitate Compliance with Federal Immigration Law by State and Local Government Entities” effectively prevents any municipality from establishing themselves as sanctuary cities, Merill explained. “Without statewide legislation, ICE facilities like this one can just keep popping up,” Merrill pointed out. “Even though Scarborough residents are very unhappy about the facility, there’s been no opportunity for public engagement. But since Maine is an economically depressed state, it’s easy pickings.”

“The work that De-ICE is doing is filling all of us immigrants across the country with hope,” said Elba Cruz, a De-ICE member who immigrated to the US 10 years ago. “It’s great that we have people that are willing to fight for us and speak for us because we can’t speak for ourselves in fear of being detained.”

Cruz was apprehended by ICE in 2018. “At that moment I was so terrified, thinking of what would happen to my daughter if I got deported,” she recalled. “She’d be here with nobody to take care of her. Every time I went for an appointment for the immigration check-in, I feared that it would be that time that I get deported. It was such a traumatic experience that I started getting physical symptoms of stress.” Cruz said that the reason she joined De-ICE was to have the opportunity to raise awareness about the difficulty of life for immigrants and contribute to building support systems that would help other immigrants avoid the hardships she went through. “We don’t come to this country to steal to kill people, we come to this country to work, to give our children a better life,” she added.

“I spent two years in El Paso at the border between Texas and Mexico organizing against U.S. Customs and Border Protection and border patrol facilities,” said Rev. Zeb Green, another De-ICE member. “Sometimes asylum seekers were released if they had a sponsor, and when we talked to them, we’d hear chilling stories of what would happen in detention – overcrowded cells, bad conditions…. Women would talk about surgeries that were performed on them, the nature of which they didn’t know.” Last October, the Department of Homeland Security launched an investigation into a whistleblower’s allegations of forced hysterectomies being carried out on immigrant women in ICE detention facilities in Georgia. “There was one ICE facility in El Paso where a group of Sikh asylum seekers staged a hunger strike to protest the conditions they were facing and ICE began force-feeding them,” Green recalled. “I went to a number of hearings to protest this practice of force-feeding, and the descriptions given of authorities holding detainees down and forcing tubes in were horrifying. It’s torture.” ICE has confirmed force-feeding at least nine detainees in El Paso, through nasal tubes, in January 2019.

Several other organizations, such as Mainers for Humane Immigration and Presente!Maine, are also protesting the new ICE facility, advocating for immigration reform, and raising funds for bail bonds for ICE detainees. Crystal Cron, President of Presente!Maine, a community organization in Maine serving the Latinx community, said, “Latinx makes up the largest minority group in Maine with over 25,000 people, but you wouldn’t know that because most of them are undocumented. The way people survive and navigate the system is by being invisible. That’s why you don’t see these people in places of business or in the park. They don’t show their faces because the threat of being taken is so huge that they live in constant fear.” Presente!Maine offers survival services, transformation education, and community organizing. “This community doesn’t qualify for any help, so we help with healthcare, legal assistance, accompany people to ICE check-ins, among other things,” Cron explained. She also works with Mainers for Humane Immigration on raising money for a bail fund. “What’s so important with having a fund like this and a network of support is the ability to act swiftly or else people just get taken away and then kids are abandoned and families destroyed,” she said.

Many Scarborough residents, including those who wouldn’t be directly affected by the new facility, have voiced opposition to its construction. “I’m very disappointed because I think it will be very disruptive to the community and leave a lasting impact,” said resident Jillian Trapizi. “The negative press, which is inevitable, will affect businesses and people that would otherwise want to come here. Most importantly, there are people in this and surrounding communities that will live in fear. I see it as a stain on our community.”