This building in Scarborough is the site of a future U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office that would include holding cells for people suspected of violating immigration laws. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

We know that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been busy in Maine over the last year, but we should know more.

We know that starting sometime last spring, as the first wave of the COVID pandemic was hitting the nation, the agency dramatically stepped up its use of the Cumberland County Jail to hold detained immigrants.

But we don’t know why.

Meanwhile, the agency is finishing renovation of an industrial building in Scarborough that would include holding cells for people suspected of violating immigration laws. But we don’t know where those people will come from or where they will go once they are processed.

What is ICE up to in Maine? Don’t ask ICE.

The agency’s silence is the subject of a lawsuit filed last week by three advocacy groups that are looking for answers: Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, the University of Maine School of Law Refugee and Human Rights Clinic and American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.


The plaintiffs are seeking in federal court to force the secretive agency to respond to requests for records made under the Freedom of Information Act that ICE has been ignoring.

The advocates may not have all the answers yet, but they do know enough to make some pretty good guesses.

According to advocates, the detainees moved through Portland were mostly people who had no local connection and had been moved from other lockups in New England before being shipped off to holding facilities in Southern states. The advocates suspect that ICE was trying to move them out of the Northeast in order to avoid stricter COVID protocols imposed by judges here.

In the midst of a pandemic, that is risky behavior. In all that traveling, detainees are more likely to get exposed to the virus and spread it. Maine has been one of the safest places in the country, but jails and prisons have been the sites of large outbreaks. Moving large numbers of detainees from one facility to another during a pandemic is a good way to spread a deadly disease among inmates, staff and their families.

The lawsuit alleges that ICE was “forum shopping,” using their authority to get suspects away from judges in New England, after rulings in several lawsuits have limited ICE’s ability to hold and move detainees during the pandemic.

It’s unclear how the new facility in Scarborough fits in with this practice. Will it be to process people arrested in Maine, or is it another part of a multi-state legal strategy to get the government’s case in front of friendly judges?


We don’t know. The plaintiffs filed information requests last year. ICE has ignored them.

No American should feel comfortable with that, no matter where they stand on the issue of immigration enforcement.

We don’t need a secret police force. And we don’t need an agency that can transfer suspects across the country at will – cutting them off from their lawyers, families and community support – because that’s what’s convenient for the government.

We want to know what ICE is up to in Maine. If the agency won’t say, a court should order it.

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