Plans to construct an ICE (Immigrant and Customs Enforcement) holding facility in Scarborough are moving forward despite community opposition. This, alongside news of the lawsuit filed by Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, has put ICE in the limelight in recent months. Through my work as a freelance writer, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate often with individuals from Maine’s immigrant populations, many of whom remain close friends. One young man I met was detained by ICE shortly after we met.  Only then did I become aware of the many human rights abuses that can occur under the auspices of ICE, and in light of recent public discourse, I felt compelled to share.

This building on Libby Road in Scarborough is the site of a future U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

This young man fled violence and political persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo but remained connected to his country and culture. Embodying a maturity I find rare for 23-year-olds, he expressed a desire to be part of a stepping-forward generation that would guide younger people away from violence and corruption. He was detained for a non-criminal offense, not uncommon according to the data. In March 2020, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC immigration enforcement tracker, only about 10 percent of detainees had committed a serious crime, and more than 60 percent had no conviction whatsoever. Yet detainees are locked up with individuals serving time for much more serious crimes. Furthermore, detainees aren’t entitled to the same access to free legal representation. The constitutional rights they do have, they’re often unaware of or are powerless to pursue.

Created in 2003 as part of the government’s reorganization after the Sept. 11 attacks, ICE has experienced rapid growth. Just this year, Congress gave ICE nearly $3 billion to maintain 200 detention centers. To secure them, ICE relies on a network of private contractors. In January, the Government Accountability Office reported that the contracts sidestep procurement laws and that ICE, overall, fails to follow even its own protocols. The Homeland Security Inspector General reported “egregious violations” in centers, including nooses in cells, restrictive segregation and inadequate medical care.

It took nearly three months to bond out the young man I met. The entire ordeal cost over $7,000 and was a massive collaborative effort among friends, family and immigrant rights advocates. The systems were complicated, secretive, expensive and disorganized. Inmate communications alone required hefty startup fees and ongoing charges, and funds often disappeared with no explanation. It was weeks before he even learned the date and conditions of his initial hearing, which left him just two days to prepare. He was relocated multiple times with no notice or explanation. This is also not uncommon. Detainees are often whisked away in the middle of the night and subjected to dangerous and unhygienic conditions. We are already aware of Cumberland County Jail’s complicit role in such transfers. Immigration lawyers say this is strategic, designed to make detainees feel so exhausted and disconnected that they eventually give up. Families can’t visit. Lawyers lose track of their clients. This can go on for years.

We can learn from our neighbors in New Hampshire, where collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE threatens to undermine trust in police and public safety.  When immigrants don’t feel safe in their communities, crimes go unreported and vulnerable communities are made more vulnerable. Furthermore, these nonbinding agreements ultimately hold state and local authorities liable for any wrongdoing. All this prioritizes federal over local, and tears at the fabric of our communities.

Immigrants contribute to our rich and vibrant communities, and their mistreatment raises human rights issues. I’ve heard the sentiment that ICE, as a national agency, is beyond the scope of local politics. Though I agree these issues need to be fought at the national front, there are times when national waxes local, and just as we cannot expect to achieve greatness in our lives without tending to the small details, cumulative local actions amass to create our national identity.  f local municipalities and members of communities take actions to prevent corrupt collaboration with ICE, there will be no fertile ground on which ICE can take root. I encourage Maine citizens to continue the fight to protect immigrant rights in the face of these recent decisions.


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