In this Dec. 14, 2020, file photo, a sign restricts access to a construction site for a federal ICE facility at 40 Manson Libby Road in Scarborough. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — A proposed detention facility for immigrants suspected of violations has drawn mounting opposition from residents since a planning board approved it last fall.

Now it’s the subject of a lawsuit from Maine civil liberties and immigrant advocacy groups.

The ACLU of Maine, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the Maine School of Law filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The lawsuit seeks transparency and more consultation with residents, who argue that the detention facility contradicts a recent anti-racism resolution passed last fall by the Scarborough Town Council.

ICE has sought to operate a holding facility for immigrants since 2019, when it signed a lease with Maine Realty Advisors for a facility at 40 Manson Libby Road. The effort was conducted covertly, without Scarborough town or police knowledge, until the Bangor Daily News broke the story last February after receiving a copy of the lease and government correspondence through a public records request.

The ACLU’s lawsuit Wednesday comes after the Department of Homeland Security allegedly failed to respond to public records requests about ICE transfers of immigrant detainees to and from detention facilities in Maine, according to the lawsuit.

“ICE is a secretive and lawless agency. It evades accountability by operating in the shadows,” said Emma Bond, legal director of the ACLU of Maine. “This lawsuit is necessary to cast light on its activities. When we know what ICE is doing, we can resist its abuses.”

Anna Welch, the director of the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the Maine School of Law, found a “significant uptick” in the number of ICE detainees held at Cumberland County Jail beginning in June 2020.

The Cumberland County Jail has been used as a short-term detention facility for years, with county coffers being reimbursed by the Department of Homeland Security.

ICE used CCJ as a short-term detention facility during the pandemic to facilitate the transfer of immigrants from New England to southern states.

Before June of 2020, ICE would utilize the jail facility to hold “a few immigrants a month,” according to Welch, who runs an immigration clinic and obtained the information from county jail administrators. From June on, the jail would be used to detain roughly half a dozen or more immigrants per day, Welch said.

The detainees would be brought to the facility from New England states. Their time in ICE custody subjected them to dangerous and unhygienic conditions during travel and in the destination facilities, according to the lawsuit.

“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,” Welch said.

Immigrants held at the county jail would typically arrive on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday and stay for three or four days. The timing of their arrivals was relevant because “there is no attorney access on the weekend,” Welch said. Most of them “were transferred between 2 and 4 a.m. typically to southern states that were experiencing high rates for COVID-19,” according to Welch’s follow-up interviews with detainees.

“We talked about really dangerous conditions of transfer in vehicles where guards or officials weren’t wearing masks or social distancing, or brought to facilities that had recent outbreaks,” Welch said.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said that his jail housed a total of 156 ICE inmates from June 1 through December 31.

The proposed ICE facility passed the Scarborough planning board in September. Town officials have said that the federal jurisdiction limits their ability to decide on the facility.

Residents have ramped up opposition to the facility since that time, forming a coalition called De-ICE Maine. They have allies in state Reps. Sophie Warren, I-Scarborough, and Chris Caiazzo, D-Scarborough, who are working on legislation to put before the state.

Warren said the ICE facility is bigger than a zoning or real estate issue in a Feb. 17 town council meeting, adding that Maine “is a home rule state.”

“When you bring a federal agency or allow a federal agency in your town, you take on a lot of responsibility,” Warren said.

Scarborough town councilor Jonathan Anderson said during the same town council meeting that he believed the ICE facility was “a done deal unless the federal government does something.”

The Scarborough industrial building is owned by Maine Realty Advisors. The building is also expected to contain a veterans health agency and a private marketing firm. Principal Josh Soley first denied knowledge that a lease had been signed for construction of the facility.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated where Chris Caiazzo lives.