Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, September 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California prisons accused of cooperating with ICE on deportations

A lawsuit claims California's prisons operate "a system of double punishment that rips apart immigrant and refugee families and communities."

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Criminal justice advocates and incarcerated people sued the California Department of Corrections on Thursday, claiming the agency discriminates against hundreds of people each year by assisting federal immigration agents. 

According to a lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation refers people in custody to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for detention and deportation after they have served their time. They say this practice contributes to a dual system of justice that targets immigrants, refugees and anyone whom officers assume was born outside the U.S.

The plaintiffs say the corrections department makes referral decisions using nothing more than their perception of an incarcerated person’s place of birth, race, ethnicity or ability to speak English. They claim the policy has led to many residents and citizens being put into the deportation pipeline based on false, racialized assumptions of their immigration status and resulted in people being blocked from rehabilitative programs that could reduce their time in custody.

Ny Nourn, co-director of plaintiff Asian Prisoner Support Committee, said she had fear and anxiety for years knowing she was under an ICE hold while incarcerated. 

“Shortly after a visit from an ICE agent, in May of 2017, on what was supposed to be my first day of freedom after being granted parole, CDCR automatically transferred me to ICE detention, where I would spend the next six months fighting deportation,” Nourn said. “CDCR continues to work with ICE to discriminate against foreign-born people like me instead of helping keep our communities safe and families together.” 

Plaintiff Roth Chan is a U.S. citizen whose family immigrated from Cambodia. When she entered custody, officials perceived her to be foreign-born and classified her as “Mexican” on prison paperwork — triggering the policy known as a “potential hold,” which state officials use to send information about people to ICE and deny them placement in prison programs. 

She claims she repeatedly notified CDCR of her U.S. citizenship but was ignored. The potential hold blocked her access to alternative-to-custody programs, rehabilitation programs and early release.

“It put me in a deep depression,” Chan said. “I would attend programs all day in prison, and by the end of the day I would cry knowing that I wasn’t earning credits for an earlier release just based on my appearance. I still have a hard time sleeping. I wonder what will happen if ICE picks me up or transfers me to an immigration detention facility.”

Plaintiff Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong, a U.S. citizen born in a refugee camp in Thailand, encountered the policy when he entered custody in 1998 and CDCR notified ICE’s predecessor although Pangthong had recently become a citizen. 

Pangthong says he lived with the threat of detention and deportation for nearly 19 years, until an attorney convinced ICE to release the hold and let him return home. He now works with Southeast Asian communities under the organization Empowering Marginalized Asian Communities, in Stockton. 

“At one period during my incarceration, it got to the point that I almost hoped to stay in CDCR custody to just avoid being ripped apart from my home and family,” he said. “Deportation would mean losing my loved ones and a life rooted in the community and state I call home. Like any other Californian, immigrants and refugees should be able to earn their release from prison and reunite with their families and communities.”

Advocates say the lawsuit exposes “unconstitutional, racist and wholly voluntary policies and practices.” It comes as the HOME Act makes its way through the California Legislature. If passed, it would ensure immigrant Californians released from state prison under criminal justice reforms are not transferred to ICE. 

The plaintiffs want a judge to find the practice of holding and notifying violates the California Constitution. They also want Gavin Newsom to halt CDCR’s voluntary cooperation with ICE. 

“This lawsuit underscores what incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people have shared about their experiences for years: California operates a system of double punishment that rips apart immigrant and refugee families and communities," said Sana Singh, attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California who represents the plaintiffs.

CDCR”s press office did not respond to a request for comment before press time. 

Follow @@nhanson_reports
Categories / Civil Rights, Courts

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.