Sep. 19--Norfolk's sheriff has ended his agreement with federal authorities to lock up suspected illegal immigrants in the city jail.
For the past two years, Sheriff Joe Baron has jailed detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in exchange for federal money, usually for a couple days before ICE officers transferred them to a long term detention facility.
But now that's over. The Norfolk Sheriff's Office's contract rider with ICE, which covered the past year, ended on Tuesday. Baron decided not to sign a new one that could have stretched into September 2020.
Baron declined through a spokeswoman to talk about his decision. The sheriff didn't respond to a voicemail and texts sent to his phone Thursday afternoon, and hasn't responded to several requests to talk about his arrangement with ICE over the past seven months.
An ICE spokeswoman didn't respond to an email asking about the end of the agreement.
Activists who'd been pushing Baron to stop jailing detainees for ICE hailed the end of the agreement as a victory.
"This is really a big win for community organizing and Norfolk in general," especially in Norfolk where voter turnout on local issues is low, activist Jena Garren said. "It shows if we put forth an effort, we can actually change things."
While the contract officially ended this week, the jail hadn't housed immigration detainees for nearly seven months. The last one came to the Norfolk jail on Feb. 22, a week after The Virginian-Pilot published a story exposing that, between September 2017 and February, the Sheriff's Office held some 830 people arrested by ICE.
In September 2017, the sheriff agreed to house ICE detainees for up to 72 hours each for $44.50 per person per day, until ICE officers could transfer them to one of their long term facilities. In a December 2018 interview with The Pilot, Baron said housing detainees protected Norfolk residents from "some bad characters." It also brought in cash. ICE paid more than $380,000 to house some 830 detainees at the Norfolk jail, although state officials siphoned off most of that.
In the first 1 1/2 years, the Norfolk Sheriff's Office accepted nearly every detainee ICE could bring, leading an ICE officer to thank the sheriff's office for its "unwavering support." On two occasions, Baron even waived a rule prohibiting ICE from leaving detainees at the jail for more than 72 hours.
One was in the summer of 2018 when ICE officers were scrambling to find beds for detainees that immigration officials were picking up at the border or arresting in Virginia during raids. The number of ICE detainees the sheriff's office was jailing spiked as a result.
But in January, after an extensive interview with The Pilot, O'Toole balked when ICE officials asked to bring in detainees. A Richmond-based ICE official explained they wanted to use the Norfolk jail to help sister ICE offices at the southern border by booking and holding detainees for a couple days before transferring them to its long term facility in Farmville.
O'Toole said they couldn't because the sheriff's office was replacing its kitchen floor and preparing food offsite.
After the first Pilot story ran on Feb. 14, the heat intensified on Baron. Dozens of protesters picketed and protested a City Council meeting, urging the city's elected lawmakers to push Baron to end the detentions.
The council has no formal authority over the sheriff, who is independently elected. But most if not all members of the council, like Baron, are Democrats in a city where Republican Donald Trump got less than 30 percent of the vote for president in 2016.
One council member said he'd support a resolution calling on the sheriff to stop working with ICE, although the council has considered no such statement. A band of activists started calling, emailing and meeting with Baron, pushing him to end his contract with ICE.
Randy Capps, a researcher at the non-partisan think tank, Migration Policy Institute, said Thursday that the sheriff's office stopping its work with ICE was a "highly symbolic" move that will "constrain ICE resources."
Partnerships with local jails are an important part of ICE's detention network because they allow the agency to plan for unexpected events such as an increase in migrants crossing the border, Capps said in an interview last month.
The advocates who pushed Baron to stop working with ICE followed a playbook that's worked in other cities across the country, he added. Uncomfortable with the Trump Administration's immigration policies and facing pressure at home, leaders in California, Illinois, Texas, North Carolina, Oregon and Northern Virginia cities and towns decided in recent years to kill ICE contracts similar to the one the Norfolk sheriff had.
It's hard to change federal immigration policy, especially if you're far from Washington, D.C., Capps said. But local officials like Baron are much more impressionable. They're elected and answerable to voters, who they might run into outside their office -- or at the grocery store.
Ending ICE detention contracts like Norfolk's doesn't affect the federal agency's ability to find people suspected of being in the country illegally, such as when those people contact police or school officials who call ICE.
Capps said some police departments have begun citing people instead of arresting them for low-level offenses such as traffic charges and marijuana possession. That keeps them out of jails where their immigration status might be checked.
Garren said she and other activists plan to talk with Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone soon regarding the department's policies about working with ICE.
As for the sheriff's office, Garren said she's sympathetic to Baron's struggle to raise money for jail programs designed to help inmates, like job training, job placement, ways to reduce recidivism, and getting an education. She said that if losing the money that was coming from ICE threatens those programs, she and others are interested in working with him to make sure they're fully funded.
"We would absolutely rally around those," she said.