After months of thousands of community members urging the authority board at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail to stop voluntarily reporting the release dates of undocumented immigrants to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the board held a special meeting September 13 to take a revote on that policy.
At the local jail, and every jail in the state, staff is required by state law to tell ICE when an undocumented immigrant is taken into custody—but they also voluntarily call the federal immigration agents when that inmate is about to be released, and oftentimes, they’ll be there waiting for a newly released immigrant as he walks out the door.
At a July board meeting, jail Superintendent Martin Kumer said ICE picked up 25 undocumented immigrants from the ACRJ between July 2017 and June 2018, who were charged with crimes such as malicious wounding, domestic assault, abduction, drunk driving, driving without a license, public swearing or intoxication, failure to appear in court, and possessing drugs.
A vote didn’t happen at the September 13 meeting, but further discussion on the practice did, and Kumer introduced new information that could eventually lead to ending those ICE notifications.
VINE, a tool on the jail’s website, could be the game changer. Kumer said anyone—including ICE agents—can sign up to receive notifications on any inmate’s custody status or release date. The system updates every 15 minutes.
While the program currently has some kinks—as noted by Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, who uses it often—Kumer said he’s already working to update the system, and would support encouraging ICE to track undocumented immigrants’ status through VINE instead of having staff call the federal immigration agents upon an inmate’s release.
But the absence of a vote didn’t sit well with community members who have long been calling for the jail board to end the process, and who prompted the special September meeting.
“They’re kicking the can down the road, obviously,” said Margot Morshuis-Coleman, a representative with the Charlottesville-Area Immigrant Resource & Advocacy Coalition, outside the jail. She noted that the “heart of the conflict is criminalizing immigration,” because ICE is currently notified of all undocumented immigrants’ release dates, not depending on the seriousness of their crimes.
“The jail should not do ICE’s work,” she said.
During a public comment session, only three of approximately 20 speakers held the same opinion. Most of them asked the jail to continue notifying ICE of the inmates’ release dates, which puzzled another CIRAC member, Priscilla Mendenhall.
“We question the fact that the majority of the public comment was by folks who were for maintaining notifications,” said Mendenhall, who was waiting in line outside the jail by 11:30am for the 12:30 meeting. Only about six of the people in line in front of her could have been in favor of continuing notifications, she reports, and when she signed up to speak, only about six or eight names were in front of hers.
Kumer said speaking time was given on a “first come, first serve” basis, and he allowed folks to enter the meeting room early because it was raining outside. He also noted that in all of the other related meetings, those against ICE notifications have dominated the public comment portion. More than 30 people signed up for public comment at the most recent meeting, and for those who didn’t get their turn, written comments were accepted and added to the meeting minutes.
Michael Del Rosso, chairman of the Charlottesville Republican Committee, was the first to speak.
“They are illegal aliens. They have no reason to be here anyway,” he said, and encouraged the jail board to continue its practice to help “get them off the streets.”
Many claimed notifying ICE of their release from jail makes the community safer, but opponents say it does quite the opposite.
In a September 12 letter to Charlottesville Sheriff James Brown—who abstained from voting on the matter in January—more than two dozen community groups and individuals encouraged him to vote to end the policy.
“While Tracci and ICE have repeatedly attempted to paint everyone who is taken into ICE custody from the ACRJ as rapists, murderers, and members of organized crime, the reality is that they are our neighbors, coworkers, classmates, parents—beloved members of the community you represent,” the letter said. “The portrayal of these inmates as violent criminals is untrue and a danger to the community in and of itself, as it stigmatizes, isolates, and persecutes an already marginalized population.”
Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding, who encouraged the board to learn more about the VINE system before voting, was prepared to vote against ending the notifications.
“It bothers me greatly that the current ICE practice is to place detainers on almost everyone coming into our jail that is here illegally,” Harding wrote in a September 2 letter to the board.
He noted that ICE only takes a percentage of undocumented immigrants into custody after they leave the jail, and after review, some are released back into the community.
“Reportedly/understandably, the time this practice requires has a detrimental impact on the family,” he wrote, but he cites his oath of office, and said he feels compelled to comply with ICE, which has been charged by Congress to enforce 400 federal statutes.
Tracci shares Harding’s opinion of compliance, and in a letter that Tracci addressed to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors September 12, he said the ACRJ becoming the first Virginia jail to discontinue ICE notifications for inmates subject to federal detainers would have “safety and legal consequences,” partially because they’d all be released back into Albemarle where the jail is located, rather than the jurisdictions where they committed their offenses. The ACRJ houses inmates who were charged in Albemarle and Nelson counties, and Charlottesville.
But the man who holds Tracci’s job in the city, Joe Platania, wrote an August 10 letter of stark contrast.
The jail board’s position of voluntarily reporting and the media coverage surrounding it has left many community members “legitimately feeling angry, scared, and isolated,” according to the city’s commonwealth’s attorney.
“In some cases, primary caretakers or breadwinners are removed and are no longer able to care for their children, who are oftentimes citizens,” wrote Platania. “I am also concerned about witnesses and victims looking at voluntary notification as a reason to be uncooperative with local law enforcement and not report crimes or participate with prosecutions because they fear the deportation of charged individuals.”
He noted the “significant concern” of two of the immigrants deported between July 2017 and June 2018—one charged with DUI and the other with assault and battery—whom a judge had released on bond prior to their trials.
“They are currently considered fugitives from justice,” Platania said. “One problem presented by this scenario is that individuals who may not be guilty of the crime they have been charged with have no ability to assert their innocence and stand trial.”
And, he added, if they were tried and convicted before their deportation, they would have been held accountable for their actions, and Platania’s office could use those convictions as evidence in the event of a second offense. Each prosecutor is also able to reach out to ICE and request assistance in cases where they believe removal is the best option, he said.
When undocumented immigrants are charged with a crime and held without bond, Platania said his office determines whether they present a flight risk, are a danger to themselves, or a danger to the community. If prosecutors can’t establish any of those factors, they recommend release back into the community with terms and conditions, and if they do establish one or more of those factors, they ask that the immigrants be held until their trial.
Platania also said he “concurs wholeheartedly” with a July 1 letter from the jail board—signed by Kumer and board chair Diantha McKeel—in which they said undocumented immigrants don’t pose an inherent danger based solely on their citizenship status.
“If the board agrees with the letter it wrote, it may be useful to have ICE articulate with specificity how the voluntary notification policy furthers legitimate local public safety needs,” Platania said. And after examining available data on city cases, “I am unable to see the positive impact the current policy has on family stability or public safety.”
Echoing the local activists’ position, he said, “If community safety is one of our guiding principles, and it must be, it seems unwise to have a policy that perhaps unintentionally (albeit foreseeably) undermines it.”
At the meeting, City Councilor and jail board member Wes Bellamy suggested that if the ICE notifications must continue, the board should be open to compromise. He suggested leniency for undocumented immigrants charged with nonviolent crimes such as public intoxication, loitering, or civil matters related to paying child support.
The board will meet again in November to further discuss their policy and hear an update on any VINE system upgrades that have been initiated.
“The decisions that we make, they have consequences on people’s lives,” Bellamy said. “This is something we have to get right.”