Cynthia Thayer was in the yard at Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro last week when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle pulled up the drive.

The agents who got out were armed and wearing body armor. Thayer said they did not draw their weapons at any point or ask about citizenship. They made small talk with a young man behind the counter in the farm store, bought some vegetables and left.

The experience shook Thayer, who said she has never had a visit from the federal agency in more than 40 years on her farm.

“I almost wish they had asked for identification or something,” Thayer said. “Just because I would at least know what their intentions were. Now, it’s like, are they going to come up again? Were they really looking for somebody? Were they just buying carrots?”

America’s focus on immigration has reached a new intensity in recent weeks, from outrage over the detention of thousands of children at the southern border to anger about citizenship checkpoints in Penobscot County. Mainers, like others, are on edge.

People are sending tips to the news media about sightings of federal immigration agents they considered unusual or suspicious, including the uneventful farmstand encounter in the small Down East town of Gouldsboro. Social media posts about raids at a community college and a shopping mall in South Portland were shared by hundreds of people across the state in recent days, even though they were unsubstantiated and later confirmed to be untrue.

Across the country, the crackdown on immigrants has fueled similar fears, making it harder to distinguish between what is real and what is rumor. It’s the kind of anxiety that many immigrants have experienced for years, said Ian Yaffe, executive director of Mano en Mano, a Milbridge nonprofit that serves farmworkers and immigrants.

“I think there are people in Maine that are maybe paying attention to immigration that maybe weren’t before,” Yaffe said. “There’s a lot more rhetoric. There’s a heightened sense of fear without changing the underlying conditions.”

Multiple people in the immigrant community declined or did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, and immigration attorneys and advocates said their clients did not want to speak publicly.

“My clients, even those with pending applications who are here lawfully, have voiced a lot of fear,” said Anna Welch, head of the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law. “They’re afraid to drive and many are afraid to go out.”

Julia Brown, an advocacy and outreach attorney at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said clients are asking questions about traveling and what papers to carry with them. She knew of one who is thinking about changing jobs to drive less and avoid immigration checkpoints, even though that person has legal status and is not in danger of detention or deportation. Others are scared to go to their required check-in appointments with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and even people who are experiencing domestic violence are afraid to apply for a humanitarian visa.

“Fear is very high in the immigrant community right now,” Brown said.

ADVOCATES: NO SPIKE IN LOCAL ARRESTS

Census data show that roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population was born in another country.

Maine has a much smaller population of immigrants. About 50,000 residents – less than 4 percent of the state’s residents – are foreign-born, and more than half are citizens. There is no count of undocumented immigrants in Maine, but the percentage is estimated to be small.

Since his first days in office, President Trump has expanded the federal government’s priorities for immigration enforcement and rolled back programs that previously protected immigrants living in the United States. As a result, the number of arrests nationwide by ICE increased 30 percent in 2017. While the majority of the people arrested had criminal convictions, the number of people arrested without known criminal convictions increased more than 140 percent last year.

In Maine, there is some evidence of changing policies. For example, a Guatemalan man living in Naples was deported in the spring of 2017. A judge had issued a removal order for him years before, but he had been allowed to remain in the United States as a low priority under Obama-era policies.

However, immigration attorneys and advocates say they have not seen an overall spike in the number of local arrests.

Brown said the legal aid nonprofit works with detainees at the Cumberland County Jail, so it has a clearer picture of how many people are being arrested by ICE. “We have not heard firsthand of any activity and have not seen an increased number of detained individuals at Cumberland County Jail,” Brown said. “We also have not observed increased ICE activity in southern Maine.”

‘SOME OF THIS FEAR IS WELL-FOUNDED’

While there has been no noticeable increase in arrests here, there is some evidence that federal immigration agents are more active in Maine than they used to be.

In January, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine received a report about a Customs and Border Protection inspection on a bus in Bangor. In May, a passenger videotaped a similar inspection at the same station, in which a Concord Coach Lines employee falsely told passengers that they needed to be U.S. citizens to ride the company’s buses. The company later said that was a “mistake” and that the employee was caught off guard because he had never been asked that question before. It does not appear that anyone was detained during either inspection.

In June, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested a Haitian national and seized drugs from vehicles during a checkpoint on Interstate 95 in Penobscot County. Similar stops have occurred on other New England highways in recent months.

The agency has said it had been increasing its transportation checks across the country, but has declined to say how often checkpoints take place in Maine.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent questions a driver entering Maine at the Jackman border crossing in 2001. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has the authority to conduct citizenship checks without a warrant within 100 miles of the nation’s land and coastal borders. That includes the entire state of Maine.

Customs and Border Protection has the authority to conduct citizenship checks without a warrant within 100 miles of the nation’s land and coastal borders. That includes the entire state of Maine.

Dr. Donathan Brown, an associate professor at Ithaca College in New York who has written about the relationship between immigration policy and fear, said the heightened enforcement and policy changes affect even immigrants who have legal documentation or even citizenship. He pointed to a recent George Washington University study of Latino immigrants with children. The survey group included people with varying immigration status, from undocumented to naturalized citizen, but a majority have lived in the United States for more than 15 years and have children who are U.S. citizens.

The study showed nearly 40 percent have begun to avoid medical care, police and other services. More than 46 percent have talked to their children about changing their behavior, such as where they hang out, even if their children are U.S. citizens not in danger of deportation. Two-thirds are worried their families will be separated.

“When you find yourself in such a politically hostile environment, fear permeates into your everyday actions and reactions,” Dr. Donathan Brown said. “Keep in mind that some of this fear is well-founded when one considers the increasing number of workplace raids and ’roundups’ conducted under this administration.”

AN UNCONFIRMED REPORT SPREADS

One Facebook post began circulating Monday afternoon.

It said ICE agents had arrested three people at Southern Maine Community College and were next entering the Maine Mall in South Portland in plainclothes. A variation of that warning was shared hundreds of times, copied and pasted from one profile to the next.

It wasn’t true.

A newspaper reporter quickly dispatched to the mall saw no evidence of federal immigration agents. The president of Southern Maine Community College sent an email to all students, saying the college had no knowledge of any ICE presence or arrests on campus. The general manager of the Maine Mall was confused when he started getting calls from customers and said he has no idea how the rumors got started.

Ultimately, an ICE spokesman said the agency had not engaged in any enforcement activity at the college or the mall last week.

Kristy Finley Labone, a 39-year-old social worker in western Maine, posted the warning on her own Facebook page at 6 p.m. Monday. She had seen it in a Facebook group and wanted to spread the word. She then contacted Southern Maine Community College and the Maine Mall, but could not get more information. She reached out to the original poster, but did not get a response.

“So I feel like an idiot but still agree that people need to be aware of their rights and be ready for situations that may arise,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “I’m sorry to have perpetuated an unconfirmed report. We live in fear.”

If people do witness ICE agents making an arrest, Julia Brown said they can videotape it as long as they do not interfere. But she also said that federal immigration agencies have local offices, and seeing one of their vehicles passing on the road does not necessarily mean an arrest is taking place.

“I can imagine people think that by passing on the information that they might be helping, because people are concerned about the immigrant community,” Brown said. “But I would caution folks not to share rumors that are not substantiated.”

Neither agency – Customs and Border Protection, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement – responded to questions about increased pressures and scrutiny on agents.

In Gouldsboro, Thayer has noticed Customs and Border Protection vehicles in her area recently, which she said she had never seen before. She wondered if the agents would have behaved differently if foreign workers were present at the farm.

“I was skeptical,” Thayer said.

Dennis Harmon, the division chief in the federal agency’s Houlton sector, said agents have been assigned to Washington and Hancock counties in recent weeks as part of “maritime patrol duties.”

“On the day in question the agents were operating on land conducting public liaison with the communities in which they were patrolling from the ocean,” Harmon wrote in an email. “The agents did stop at a local farm stand to get a few items for their lunch – a common practice as Border Patrol agents patronize many of the businesses in communities they work in.”

 

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