Jail Commission hears concerns about immigrant inmates

By: Grace Mamon

City law enforcement said they never hold anyone past their bond release date, regardless of citizenship status. Photo by Grace Mamon.

The Regional Jail Commission, facing criticism from legal advocates, said law enforcement officials do not alert U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about non-citizen inmates.

ICE, under the Trump administration, will issue “detainers” or warrants to hold non-citizens past their bond release date. That’s unconstitutional, said Matthew Boaz, assistant director of the immigrant’s rights clinic at the Washington and Lee School of Law.

The jail does not have to comply with this sort of warrant because its “not a judicially issued warrant. It’s just an administrative warrant,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting between the commission was a follow-up to an earlier discussion with a larger audience of law school students and other members of the community.

Boaz spoke alongside Tammi Hellwig, another W&L law school professor and a member of the 50 Ways Rockbridge immigration group. The jail commission includes Sheriff Steve Funkhouser and jail superintendent Derek Almarode, as well as Lexington City Manager Jim Halasz.

The commission members said that no one at Rockbridge Regional Jail is ever held past their release date, regardless of their citizenship status. “Not an hour,” said Ed Hosken, commission chairman.

Sheriff Funkhouser agreed, saying that the magistrate is the one who decides if someone can be released on bond.

“We’re only holding people on criminal behavior,” Funkhouser said. “Our officers are not inquiring, asking, using status, birthright, immigration or anything else as a reason to hold them.”

During the intake process, the jail officials determine a person’s immigration status. The query can come back with a “hit,” meaning that that individual is wanted for outstanding criminal activity, possibly in another locality.

Matthew Boaz and Tammi Hellwig spoke at the jail commission meeting on Wednesday. They wanted to make sure Rockbridge Regional Jail was not acting unconstitutionally toward non-citizen individuals. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Only then will Rockbridge Regional Jail contact ICE and tell federal officials the person’s bond release date. It’s then up to ICE officials to decide whether to pick up the inmate upon release.

Boaz and Hellwig said they wanted to make sure that these hits were only for criminal activity and not issued by ICE about the individual’s immigration status, which is a civil matter.

The distinction between criminal and civil offenses is a big deal in immigration conversations, and can be a source of confusion, said Ann Olsen, head of the immigration group at 50 Ways.

“Immigration is a civil matter in our country. It is not a criminal matter, no matter what Trump says,” Olsen said in an interview.

Using law enforcement to address immigration issues as if they’re a crime can dampen community trust in the police, she said.

Boaz and Hellwig said other Virginia localities have ceased communication between law enforcement and ICE, which they believe makes the community safer. Fairfax County has ceased communication with ICE for those charged with misdemeanors, while Prince William County has ceased communication entirely, Boaz said.

City Manager Jim Halasz said that the idea that the community doesn’t trust law enforcement is “disturbing.” He said they all work to do their jobs properly and transparently.

“We all know that there are elements in our nation that just distrust law enforcement in their gut, whether we’re doing it right or wrong,” he said. “I find it very upsetting. So, I don’t want us to be on trial just because someone in the community says we don’t trust them.”

Boaz said that a drafted statement to clarify the jail’s policy would help bolster community trust and clarify any misunderstanding.

Hosken said the commission will accept such a proposal, but cannot make any promises about further actions.

“If we got to this point, there must be some confusion in the community,” Hellwig said.

But they were happy to hear that the jail is not holding anyone unconstitutionally.

“We have heard very different,” Boaz said to Almarode. “But if that’s the policy that is great. I think you are exactly aligned with what we would have asked for.”