PORTLAND, Maine — Federal immigration officials have paid Maine’s largest county jail hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2015 for detaining immigrants there ahead of deportation and removal proceedings.
That revenue is squaring the jail’s budget and lessening the burden that taxpayers must contribute to corrections operations, said Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce.
But critics say jails who do this are becoming dependent on these revenue streams, with some fearing they’re incentivized for detaining immigrants. The practice has the potential to fuel racial profiling within law enforcement, they say, if facilities are able to make money from these immigrants, who are most often persons of color.
Between 2015 and 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement paid $297,050 to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office to detain noncitizens with violations at its correction facility, according to records obtained by the Bangor Daily News in a public records request.
Boston’s Suffolk County Jail ended its relationship with ICE last fall so it could free up space for more women inmates.
But Cumberland County Jail has an active contract with ICE, and receives $130 a day for each immigrant detainee it holds there. These types of contracts with ICE have been scrutinized by government watchdogs and activists, who claim the agency skirts the public bidding process and allows jails to operate without standard operating procedures required of other federal awards.
According to the U.S. Office of Inspector General, it means “ICE may have overpaid for detention services,” and there’s no assurance the agency “executed detention center contracts in the best interest of the federal government, taxpayers or detainees.”
In the most recent year tracked, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office netted $49,920 in payments from federal ICE officials by detaining immigrants facing deportation.
Revenue from detainees spiked in 2017, when ICE remitted payments of $147,940 to the department. Detainees collectively spent 1,138 days at the facility that year.
An ICE spokesperson did not elaborate why the number of detainees at the Cumberland County facility increased in 2017, saying the figure “routinely fluctuates from year to year depending on immigration enforcement requirements as well as other factors during various periods of time.”
A small share of noncitizens arrested by ICE face serious charges such as homicide or kidnapping. But many face traffic violations or routine driving infractions, said Randy Capps, a director of research at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, a national group which tracks migration data.
“You do hear stories about [immigrants] being arrested and taken to jail for very minor crimes, that’s where racial profiling in policing conversation comes into play,” he said.
ICE deported more than 267,000 noncitizens from the U.S. in 2019, according to the agency’s annual report. Two-thirds of the combined convictions and charges against immigrants facing deportation were for crimes involving drugs and driving under the influence, according to data compiled by the agency.
The number of people detained in facilities nationwide for alleged immigration violations has ballooned by 40 percent since President Donald Trump took office. More than 486,000 noncitizens were detained in 2019, with 70 percent of that population in privately run centers.
An ICE spokesperson did not provide information on the offenses for detainees in Cumberland County, but Sheriff Joyce said their stays are “often brief and long enough for the local ICE office to complete the necessary paperwork.”
U.S. law treats immigration detention as a civil and administrative process, not a criminal one. Detainees are typically given a charging document that tells them that ICE officials believe they are removable, but that they have a right to appear before an immigration judge, according to Capps.
ICE fingerprints those they arrest and share the records through a national immigration database.
“That’s the No. 1 way that people who’ve gotten arrested have come into ICE custody,” said Capps. “If there’s a hit that pings a remote ICE office, then ICE sends an electronic detainer request to hold that person.”
The BDN learned through a public records request in February that ICE plans to build a detention center in Scarborough this spring. It’s unclear how the facility could affect current detainer agreements between ICE and local jails.
In June, a Black Lives Matter group in Maine called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, including a push for state and local law enforcement agencies to stop cooperating with national immigration officials, which have ramped up efforts to remove immigrants during the Trump Administration.