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Shaheen protests ICE decision to ban clergy from Manchester federal building during immigration hearings

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 20. 2018 10:21PM
Bishop Peter Libasci of the Diocese of Manchester greets marchers supporting immigration detainees at the federal building in Manchester on Tuesday morning. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has intervened in a months-long effort to restore the right of clergy to quietly wait in the lobby of the Norris Cotton Federal Building in downtown Manchester as church members meet with ICE officials on their immigration status.

The New Hampshire Council of Churches is among the groups that hold prayer vigils on a regular basis in front of the federal building when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement meetings take place.

“Unfortunately, in late 2017, the group was told by the ICE regional office that clergy would no longer be allowed into the lobby of the Norris Cotton federal building to offer that pastoral support,” according to Shaheen.

In a June 15 letter to the federal immigration enforcement agency heads, Shaheen protests the decision and poses several questions about its legality.

“I am concerned about the legality and ethics of prohibiting a peaceful religious group from accessing a federal facility,” she wrote, asking for a justification for the decision and written documentation surrounding the decision-making process.

A meeting to discuss building access involving the Council of Churches, ICE and the General Services Administration was held in March, but in June federal officials decided against reinstating building access for the council members.

John Mohan, public affairs officer for ICE in the New England Region, said in an email that the decision followed a review of agency safety and security requirements, “in consultation with local external community stakeholders earlier this year.”

“It was determined that additional restrictions of access to certain agency workspace areas within the Norris Cotton Federal Building in Manchester were required,” according to Mohan.

“In order to better coordinate operational security requirements of space used by ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, as well as to ensure no interruption in operations for other government business, and for a high volume of members of the public and federal employees who are required to regularly access the building, certain workspaces that ERO occupies have seen additional access restrictions,” he wrote.

Shaheen also protested the ICE decision to prohibit the Rev. Sandra Pontoh from serving as an interpreter for several Indonesian immigrants now living in Dover who must report regularly for ICE meetings.

“The Rev. Pontoh was told by the regional field office that this change in practice is because of an ICE decision to use only ICE-certified translators for interpretive services from now on,” according to Shaheen.

“Given that the Rev. Pontoh has been permitted to interpret for ICE for many years, has ICE recently changed its federal policies regarding interpretive services?” she asks.

Mohan acknowledges that Pontoh was previously allowed to provide interpreter services “due to an increase in volume of required interpretation services,” but ICE is now using only agency-contracted interpreters for official businesses at this location.”

Shaheen’s office released her letter to immigration officials the day after the most recent vigil at the federal building on Tuesday, which was joined by New Hampshire Bishop Peter A. Libasci.

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