In this July 8, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif. The number of people arrested by ICE and detained at the Cumberland County Jail more than doubled during the pandemic over the previous year. Credit: Gregory Bull / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Federal use of the Cumberland County Jail to detain people suspected of immigration violations has sharply risen over the last five years.

Within months after the coronavirus pandemic forced emergency shutdowns in the state, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, significantly increased the number of noncitizens it detained in the southern Maine facility. Many came from elsewhere in New England and held at the county jail before many were taken to jails in southern states.

In all, 156 people were arrested and detained at the southern Maine facility from June through December of 2020. That figure is more than double the total over the same period in 2019 and more than 4 times the 44 ICE detainees held at the facility over the entirety of 2016, according to data provided by Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce.

The uptick is a key part of a lawsuit filed against ICE last week by the ACLU of Maine, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the Maine School of Law. The civil rights groups seek data from ICE on the agency’s use of the jail and a proposed Scarborough detention facility, alleging that the agency failed to respond to public records requests.

ICE, which keeps an administrative office in downtown Portland, has sought to operate an expanded holding facility for immigrants in Scarborough since 2019, when it signed a lease with Maine Realty Advisers for a facility at 40 Manson Libby Road. Their effort was unknown to Scarborough town or police officials until February 2020 when the Bangor Daily News published details about the lease after a public records request.

Anna Welch, director of the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the Maine School of Law who operates a clinic serving immigrants in Maine, interviewed migrants who had been detained at the facility before being transferred elsewhere. Welch found that most immigrants held at the jail had “no connection to Maine.”

Detainees would often arrive on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday and stay for three or four days. Most “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.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office to detain noncitizens with violations at its correction facility, according to documents obtained by the Bangor Daily News in a public records request.

Detainees held at the jail have decreased so far in 2021, with one arrestee held there in January. A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement located in Boston did not respond to an inquiry. The agency removed 185,884 people from the U.S. in 2020, according to an annual report. Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has advanced policies aiming to limit arrests and deportations relative to those under former President Donald Trump.

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 Migration Policy Institute, a national group that 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,” Capps said.

Advocates believe the proposed ICE facility in Scarborough could take over as the primary holding facility for arrestees. The town’s planning board passed the proposal in September, and town officials have said that the federal jurisdiction limits their ability to decide on the facility.

Residents have ramped up opposition to the facility in recent months, forming a coalition called De-ICE Maine. They have allies in state Reps. Sophie Warren, I-Scarborough, and Chris Caiazzo, D-Scarborough. Warren said it was “extremely concerning to see an agency not comply with the law and issuance of a request through the Freedom of Information Act.”