The developers of the building in Scarborough that will house a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office told town officials that the office will not be used for overnight detentions. ICE officials have said the facility will be used to process, fingerprint and detain people for as long as 12 hours. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Three immigrant-rights groups in Maine are suing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for information about its detention activities in the state.

The ACLU of Maine, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law filed on Wednesday a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking information about ICE’s new facility in Scarborough and its practice of holding immigrant detainees from other New England states at the Cumberland County Jail.

The lawsuit alleges ICE has used the jail as a short-term detention facility to facilitate transfers to southern states during the pandemic. That practice subjected immigrants in custody to dangerous and unhygienic conditions during travel and in the destination facilities, the lawsuit states.

The groups that filed the lawsuit are seeking a number of records, including those approving transfers of ICE detainees to or from detention facilities in Maine, records of transfers to and from the Cumberland County Jail, and records about the plans, use and policies for the ICE facility in Scarborough. The lawsuit says the federal agency violated its responsibility under the Freedom of Information Act to respond to the group’s request for public records within 20 business days of when it was filed on Jan. 15.

The request includes an application for expedited processing based on a compelling need to disseminate the information and because of the urgency “to inform the public concerning actual or alleged government activity,” according to the complaint filed in federal court.

“Students at the RHRC and other advocates observed a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants in ICE custody held at CCJ between June and December last year,” Anna Welch, director of the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, said in a statement. “In most cases, immigrants held at CCJ from June to December had no connection to Maine. ICE agents quickly whisked them away – often in the middle of the night – to detention centers in southern states facing COVID-19 outbreaks. The ICE facility in Scarborough raises serious concerns given ICE’s detention practices to date in Maine.”

The lawsuit says the “unnecessary” transfers violated ICE’s pandemic response policy, which permits transfers for a limited number of reasons and only after following quarantine procedures.

“Families are at risk of being broken up, and people in ICE custody face real harm. It’s harder for them to access legal assistance,” Philip Mantis, legal director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, said in a statement. “With the stakes so high, ICE must be held accountable for following the law and being transparent in its conduct.”

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, who oversees operations at the Cumberland County Jail, provided figures Wednesday to the Press Herald that substantiate the groups’ claims that there was an increase in the number of immigrants in ICE custody at the jail during 2020. But Joyce provided no insight on why the numbers spiked significantly, adding that ICE does not share that type of information with him.

According to Joyce, 134 immigrants in ICE custody were admitted to the jail between March 1, 2019, and March 1, 2020 – just days before the COVID-19 pandemic took off in the United States. Between March 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021, the jail admitted 212 immigrants in ICE custody, for an increase of 78 admissions over the previous 12-month period, the sheriff said.

In a February 2020 interview with the Press Herald, Joyce said he would not hold a prisoner beyond their release date to allow ICE to build a case against an alleged illegal immigrant. Detainer requests, lacking probable cause, could potentially constitute a violation of an individual’s rights under the Fourth Amendment, Joyce said. The sheriff said problems in the past arose when ICE asked the jail to hold a prisoner, who may have been arrested by a state trooper or local law enforcement officer on a local charge, beyond their release date.

Joyce said he could only speculate on why there has been a spike in ICE detainees over the past year. He has been seeing more and more interagency prisoner transfers from other states. In November, ICE transported three immigrants to Portland from Rhode Island and Connecticut, but they were turned away when one of the prisoners tested positive for COVID-19. The three individuals were transported in the same van, which increased the likelihood of all three being infected.

“I refused because I am going to protect the inmates and my staff from contracting the virus,” Joyce said. He said the Cumberland County Jail may be viewed as a convenient location for agents who work out of an office in southern Maine and is close to the immigrant court in Boston.

Scarborough Town Councilor Jonathan Anderson, who has been in touch with ICE and the Scarborough developer, Maine Realty Advisors, said information about the project has been hard to come by. During a Feb. 17 town council meeting, several people spoke in opposition to the ICE facility under construction at 40 Manson Libby Road. The project was approved in August by the Scarborough Planning Board.

The council reported it had received 230 emails in regard to the facility, which will be shared with the Portland Veteran’s Center. The ICE facility will use 6,000 of the space’s 16,000 square feet. The developers of the project told Scarborough town officials that the office will not be used for overnight detentions and ICE officials have said the facility will be used to process, fingerprint and detain people for up to 12 hours.

A Scarborough state legislator who spoke at the Feb. 17 meeting said she and other lawmakers are working on a bill that would make ICE’s intentions in Scarborough more transparent. Rep. Sophie Warren could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

John Mohan, a spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in the New England region, said the agency is aware of the lawsuit and claims about detention made by the plaintiffs, but he could not comment on it because the litigation is pending. He also said he could not answer questions about plans for the Scarborough facility.

The plan to open the ICE facility to Scarborough became public in February 2020, just a month before the start of the pandemic in Maine.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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