PORTLAND, Maine — The ACLU of Maine and two Portland-based immigrant rights groups filed suit Wednesday against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seeking information about ICE activities in Maine -- information the groups say they requested in multiple Freedom of Information Act requests that as of Wednesday remained unanswered.
Qainat Khan of the ACLU of Maine said Wednesday that the plaintiffs -- also including the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law -- seek information about immigrants from other New England states who are in ICE custody being detained temporarily at the Cumberland County Jail until they are transferred to holding facilities in the southern part of the United States.
"We know that people in ICE custody have a COVID-19 infection rate that is 13 times higher than the general population. That's nationwide," Emma Bond, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, told NEWS CENTER Maine Wednesday. "That alone tells us that ICE has been engaging in some concerning practices, and when immigration advocates in Maine looked more closely at ICE practices over the summer and fall, they actually found that ICE had been increasing the movement of people to Portland, Maine, during the pandemic, often in crowded and unhygenic settings."
According to court documents, CCJ saw increased use by ICE after lawsuits were filed in other New England states
The FOIA request, filed Jan. 15, also seeks information about a new ICE holding facility planned in Scarborough, which the suit alleges is being built "with little transparency and consultation of local representatives and residents."
"ICE agents quickly whisked them away -- often in the middle of the night -- to detention centers in southern states facing COVID-19 outbreaks," Anna Welch, director of the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, said in a release. "The ICE facility in Scarborough raises serious concerns given ICE’s detention practices to date in Maine.”
Under federal law, a FOIA request requires a response within 20 days.
In October 2019, protesters gathered in Portland to protest the planned Scarborough facility.
At the time, John Mohan, spokesman for the ICE New England office, told NEWS CENTER Maine that the office would include a "holding cell," but that the agency works on a variety of cases including human trafficking, child exploitation, and wire fraud.
U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, called on the federal government to cancel plans for the Scarborough facility until more was shared by the federal government about its purposes.
“We filed this records request because people have the right to know how ICE is treating people and what ICE is doing in our backyards," Bond said. "ICE is a very secretive agency. They try to evade accountability by operating in the shadows, so this lawsuit is necessary because we can't hold ICE accountable unless we know what they're doing."
According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, ICE officials have not yet responded to the original FOIA request or to a follow-up email sent to the ICE FOIA office on Feb. 22.
Citing ongoing litigation, Mohan, of the ICE New England office, declined to comment on Wednesday.