Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is concerned about federal officials moving a veterans center from Portland to this building at 40 Manson Libby Road in Scarborough. The center would have to co-exist with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which Pingree said could prevent some veterans from visiting the center. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s objections last month to the federal Department of Homeland Security’s plans to move a veterans’ center from South Portland to Scarborough — a move she says could keep veterans from seeking assistance at the center — have so far gone unanswered, her office said this week.

Pingree, in a May 21 letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Tae D. Johnson, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said she was concerned the Portland Vet Center, currently located on Stevens Avenue in Portland, would be co-located with a space ICE already uses in the same building at 40 Manson Libby Road in Scarborough. A spokesperson for Pingree’s office said this week that there had been no reply to the letter.

Pingree’s concerns are just the latest developments that have surrounded the ICE building since word leaked in February 2020 that ICE was moving into Scarborough. More than a year later, local officials still have not been told anything about what ICE does or plans to do at the Manson Libby Road location, and an activist group in Maine continues to protest the agency’s activities in town.

The Portland Vet Center serves as a counseling center that offers services including readjustment counseling to veterans, active duty service members and their families, according to Grant Kirk, director of the Bangor Vet Center in Bangor, speaking on behalf of the Portland facility. Despite Pingree’s letter that indicates the move to Scarborough is planned, Kirk said the center is looking “in and around the greater Portland area” for a location with more space.

The presence of ICE would deter some veterans from going to the center, Pingree said. Non-citizen veterans, for example, would be less likely to seek medical care there, she wrote, as would any veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and related disorders, given that ICE has not publicly indicated whether it will detaining people at the building.

Regarding Pingree’s concerns, Kirk provided the following statement: “When deciding where to locate the Portland Vet Center, we are first and foremost focused on the needs and desires of those we serve and those we are trying to reach. We strive to create an environment where veterans, service members and their families can build community with each other, establish personalized goals, and work with our team of professionals to accomplish them. If we cannot create an environment that is conducive to their readjustment, then we will evaluate other areas where we can.”

ICE’s exact purpose in the Scarborough building has never been clear. ICE and DHS did not respond to multiple requests over the course of two weeks from The Forecaster for comment. The agency has not publicly disclosed its purpose in Scarborough, and even whether the agency has even fully moved into the building yet remains a mystery. In February 2020, when a media report announced ICE was coming to town, Pingree wrote that the government responded only with documentation indicating that in 2017 the General Services Administration had it was seeking “a class A office” in either Scarborough or South Portland.

“However, because DHS encompasses several agencies, it is likely that the notification was insufficient to reflect the actual agency and scope of the project,” Pingree wrote in her May 21 letter. “Local officials have stated publicly that they were not informed about the ICE project.”

Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said neither he nor any other town officials that he knows of have been told what ICE is doing in the building. Nor have ICE and DHS said much to town officials about their plan to relocate the vet center, Hall said. As long as ICE and DHS comply with local zoning laws, Hall said, there’s nothing the town can do.

“That’s the part that I think upsets most people,” he said. “We’ve had no legal reason to deny their proposal.”

Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton is similarly in the dark. He said the agency has never explained its purpose in the building to him, and he isn’t surprised, given the size and scope of the agency’s work.

“It’s just they’re so big a machine, and that’s how it operates,” he said.

Moulton did say, however, that his department reviews requests to the town planning board, which included ICE’s initial proposal for coming to Scarborough. Moulton said his department’s review found the proposal was for office space, and appeared to include nothing more. That’s not a guarantee, he said, that the agency isn’t housing or interrogating detainees there, but “from what we’ve seen, does it appear that way? Certainly not.”

Kelly Merrill, community organizer for De-ICE Maine, an activist group objecting to ICE’s practices nationwide and its presence in Maine in particular, voiced concerns this week about ICE’s presence in Scarborough, given how little information there is about the agency’s functions there. De-ICE has at least 25 volunteers and works with approximately 10 other human-rights-oriented organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

“There’s no transparency around that facility,” Merrill said.

Merrill said the agency’s controversial practices during the Trump administration, particularly along the Mexican border, have left an ugly legacy that extends as far as Maine, whether the agency is really detaining people in Scarborough or not.

“It’s part of the same machine,” Merrill said.

Merrill agreed with Pingree’s concerns that non-citizen veterans would be deterred from visiting a vet center located next to an ICE facility of any kind, and supported the congresswoman’s request that federal officials delay the co-location until the public can get more information about the scope of ICE’s work in town.

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