By Lillian Lema

Tensions at the southern U.S. border continue to grow as more and more undocumented children are arriving on their own, families are being separated, and children and adults are being held at detention centers. And although the southern border is over 2,200 miles away, families suffer from the same separations and threats of separation in Maine as at the border to the south.

In 2019, despite local opposition, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened a new office in downtown Portland at One City Center. Although ICE Spokesperson John Mohan stated at the time that the Portland office wouldn’t focus on detaining undocumented immigrants, but instead would handle crimes such as human trafficking, child exploitation, financial wire fraud, and gang investigations, local residents still didn’t want them there.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported an arrest of 17 undocumented immigrants over the Thanksgiving 2019 holiday weekend by the Rangeley Border Patrol Station. The 17 men had come from Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, and El Salvador, and had been detained in Auburn, Stratton, and Turner. Twelve of the men had entered the United States legally in July 2019, through Laredo, Texas, as H2A non-immigrant agricultural workers and were supposed to leave the U.S. by August 2019. The other men had entered the country illegally by crossing the Mexican-American border. These men were working locally as laborers and contractors.

Migrant Memorial Cloth – by Maine artist Susan Smith.

Other cases of detention have included seven undocumented immigrants from Brazil and Portugal who were detained last fall in Rumford. Last month, there were reports of five men who were picked up by state police on Route 295 in Gardiner and then transferred to Border Patrol.

As reported in Amjambo Africa in May, a new ICE processing facility is nearing completion in Scarborough. Two non-profit organizations, Presente! Maine and Mainers for Humane Immigration, have joined forces to create an online auction to raise funds for bail money for undocumented immigrants in Maine who are picked up by ICE and detained. The online auction is scheduled to begin June 27 and run through June 29.

Maryellen Dunn and Maureen Calder, both organizers of Mainers for Humane Immigration, have spent their retirement years trying to find ways to help immigrant communities, both nationally and locally. In the past, they organized the Uncaged Art exhibit, along with an accompanying art auction in Waterville. Together, they have raised over $30,000 for organizations that work along the southern border, including San Juan Apóstol migrant shelter; Hope Border Institute in El Paso; Team Brownsville, Global Response Management, Sidewalk School for Asylum Seekers, and Resource Center in Matamoros, Mexico; and Green Valley Samaritans in Arizona.

Dunn explained that after learning about the new ICE processing facility in Scarborough, and the fear it is creating in local communities, she connected with De-ICE Maine, a local grassroots coalition, and from there met Crystal Cron, president of Presente! Maine, which works for the empowerment of Latinx people in Maine.  

“One of the things that Crystal kept saying was that the Latinx community in Portland and Lewiston need drivers licenses and bail money,” Dunn said. So Dunn spoke with her friends and fellow organizers and created the online art auction to raise ICE bail funds.

According to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP), immigration judges can set bonds no lower than $1,500, and the amount of the bond depends on the judge and the particulars of each case. Further, the State of Maine does not have authority over the bond amounts set by the immigrations courts, which are federal administrative courts and are part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. Ultimately, the U.S. Congress or the agency itself has authority over the laws and regulations that set these bonds.

Both Dunn and Calder hope the online art auction raises at least $10,000 to help with bail funds for undocumented immigrants in Maine. “We don’t want to see anyone locked up unjustly… these are families who are being separated,” Calder said. “There is a large community in the Portland area who will not leave their apartments because they are afraid that they will be stopped by ICE for some reason.”

Dunn believes it is inhumane for people to have to live in fear because of ICE, when they have already been through traumatic events in their lives. “It is the responsibility of all who live here to show solidarity and support…. This auction is just one way to do that,” she said.

The online auction has received support from artists outside of Maine, including New Hampshire, New York, Texas, and even Mexico. Dunn and Calder reached out to many artists to see if they would be interested in participating in this event. The list of artists who have donated art or money include Abigail Shahn, Mable Ney, Titi de Baccarat, Gordon Bok, and Desiree Dubois. Calder said the auction features work by nearly 50 artists.

And in the future? “When a need comes up, we will offer our services. Will this fundraiser become a yearly thing? If Crystal says we need this, then yes!” said Dunn.

“We aren’t going away. We will continue to work and advocate, whether through the media, protests, or writing to our government in Maine and Washington… keeping it going so it doesn’t get lost,” Calder explained. “Hopefully, as people become more aware, we will have more people to join us to support our cause.”