Despite outrage from local activists earlier this month, the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail Board voted, 7-3, to continue the jail’s policy of notifying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when undocumented immigrants with detainers are about to be released from custody.
At a special meeting Thursday, the board said maintaining the policy was in the interest of public safety.
Earlier this month, local activists and organizations, including the Legal Aid Justice Center, asked the jail to consider nixing its policy of giving courtesy notifications to ICE 48 hours before the release of an incarcerated undocumented immigrant. Last year, the jail ended its policy of holding people past their release date by 48 to 72 hours to give ICE time to pick someone up.
ICE currently is notified automatically when an undocumented immigrant is booked into a jail because their fingerprints are sent electronically to its database. Once an immigrant is booked, ICE can then come to the jail, interview that individual and then decide whether to place a detainer on the person — meaning the person would be detained at an immigration center and possibly deported.
But ICE does not automatically know when one of those individuals is released from a locality’s jail, hence the courtesy calls.
The problem with this, according to Tanishka Cruz, who works at the Legal Aid Justice Center, is that it makes it easier for ICE to pick up more people indiscriminately, regardless of the severity of their charges at the local level. She said there is no legal requirement that jails notify ICE when someone is being released.
Since President Donald Trump took office last year, Cruz said, there has been a shift from prioritizing the detainment of convicted violent criminals to no discrimination of the different levels of crimes.
“Folks being picked up on things as minor as driving without a license or failure to pay child support,” Cruz said.
This, in turn, is bad for public safety, because it means communities of undocumented immigrants are less likely to report crimes to law enforcement because they are afraid they will be detained by ICE or deported, she said.
She said that if ICE has an interest in someone being held at ACRJ, it should have to get a warrant and have probable cause to detain someone. Without the courtesy notification, Cruz said, ICE would be forced to have priorities again and focus only on people who are convicted of serious offenses.
On average, according to jail Superintendent Martin Kumer, ICE picks up about four undocumented immigrants who are on a detainer a month. To put that in perspective, Kumer said, the jail books about 3,000 to 4,000 people every year, out of which 50 might be picked up by ICE.
“We don’t know how many people are undocumented, just the ones that ICE puts a detainer on,” Kumer said at the meeting.
Kumer recommended that the jail continue its policy of notifying ICE for every immigrant with a detainer because he said ICE often knows more about the person’s criminal history than any other law enforcement agency will ever know.
“To determine when we call is too much of a burden for me and my staff,” Kumer said. “We have to let the process work out. I’m not saying I like it. Sometimes the system doesn’t work.”
“I just don’t have enough information to make these decisions,” he said. “Let these people do their jobs. That is the safest thing I can recommend.”
During the public comment session, Jim Hingeley, a former public defender for Charlottesville, said a major issue with ICE detainers is that they are not issued with any probable cause or review by a magistrate.
“We, as a community when we enforce our criminal laws, … require warrants to meet a certain standard,” Hingeley said. “That’s what’s missing in the ICE process.”
Diane Weber, an Albemarle County resident, said she wanted the jail to continue its current policy of notification because once an undocumented immigrant enters the country, they have already broken the law.
“Public safety is eroded when there are no repercussions,” Weber said.
The jail serves Charlottesville and Albemarle and Nelson counties, and while city Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania was unable to attend the meeting, Robert Tracci and Daniel Rutherford — prosecutors for Albemarle and Nelson, respectively — both voiced support for continuing the current policy.
“If ICE is not notified when someone they have requested detained is released, they can’t be prosecuted, which isn’t good for public safety,” Tracci said.
City Councilor Wes Bellamy, who just took a seat on the board after Kristin Szakos left the City Council this year, was in favor of amending the current policy in effort to protect families from undue burden when ICE detains someone for a minor offense.
Bellamy supported a motion that did not pass in which the jail would notify ICE for all felonies and driving under the influence offenses, but to defer to prosecutors for each jurisdiction on misdemeanor matters.
Albemarle Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding, following the successful motion he put forward, said it was a public safety issue, despite some cases that pull at the heartstrings. For the majority of cases there is a reason to detain someone, he said.
“I feel like we should keep it the way it is,” said Harding. “Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not. Will Congress ever get its act together and get a good system together? Who knows? I’d like to see that.”
Voicing his disappointment after the meeting, Bellamy said ICE and the criminal justice system in general tend to discriminate against people of color. He said the system takes a hard-handed approach to everyone, even in cases as simple as someone driving without a license because they have to work to support their family.
“I don’t believe this was a matter in terms of public safety,” Bellamy said. “I firmly believe that we have individuals who have been picked up and detained by ICE, which has proven to be an organization that discriminates, in my opinion, and disproportionately picks up people of color.”
“I’m just very disappointed that our board couldn’t move forward collectively and do what’s right for the people,” he said. “But I believe in the power of people. I believe this will be rectified, we just have to continue to keep the faith and stay strong.”