Jail Board Debates Whether to Notify ICE Before Releasing Undocumented Prisoners

Sep 14, 2018

The Albemarle-Charlottesville Jail Board has delayed a controversial decision on whether to notify ICE when undocumented prisoners are about to be released.  The jail currently calls immigration, allowing the arrest and deportation of people who are sometimes innocent or guilty of minor offenses.  The board is unlikely to end that practice despite receiving a petition with over 2,000 signatures opposing it.

About 50 opponents were shut out of hearings on whether the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail should call ICE before releasing undocumented prisoners. They watched on closed-circuit TV outside.

The board is made up of representatives from Charlottesville’s government, Albemarle and Nelson county officials and three sheriffs.  Most, like Chip Harding, see an obligation to cooperate with ICE.

“It’s a public safety issue," he explained. "There could be other information that immigration officials have on these folks.  Even when you say a DUI or a drunk in public, if ICE officials knew they failed two times to show up for an immigration court hearing, or if they’d committed a homicide in Mexico, we wouldn’t necessarily have that information.”

And while the law does not require that ICE be notified when people are about to be freed from the jail, Albemarle’s prosecutor Robert Tracci felt failing to do so was not in keeping with federal law.

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s right to substitute their own judgment for what the immigration laws ought to be with the clear and established body of law at the federal level," Tracci said.

But some, like city councilman Wes Bellamy, would prefer that the jail not call ICE every time an undocumented person is released. He proposed skipping the call in the case of minor crimes and said doing so would help to mitigate racism in the legal justice system.

“Standing up for out Latino or Latinex brothers and sisters is important, because this is very reminiscent of things that they used to do to people who look like me,” he argued.

Grass roots organizers like Priscilla Mendenhall had hoped to speak against cooperation with ICE.

“If it’s a public safety issue, we have to rely on our local criminal justice system.," she said. "If a judge sets bond, if people serve their time just as anyone else serves their time.  In terms of the people who are being released to ICE, they’re being permanently separated from their families.”

That sentiment was echoed by Deena Sharuk, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

“A lot of people have been granted bond – been assessed as to whether or not they are a danger to the community – and a judge has ruled that they are not, has allowed them to pay bond and to go back to their homes.  If ICE would like to pick somebody up from our jail, just like any other law enforcement agency, they can seek a criminal warrant.”    

During a public comment period only two people spoke in support of skipping the calls to ICE.  About a dozen others who favored collaboration had gotten to the meeting two and a half hours early to sign-up for the limited number of spots, and about 50 people were left outside to watch on closed-circuit TV, because there was no space for them in the meeting room.

The board seemed inclined to continue contacting ICE but said it might use an electronic system designed to notify families when a relative is getting out.  If that system can overcome some technical problems, members said it could make calls from the jail unnecessary.  The panel will consider that possibility at its meeting in November.