California Prison Agency ‘Discriminates’ in ‘Efforts to Assist ICE,’ Charges Lawsuit

The Davis Vanguard | April 28, 2023 | By The Vanguard Staff

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) “unlawfully discriminates against hundreds of people each year in its wholly voluntary efforts to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),” according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in the Superior Court here.

Plaintiffs are Roth Chan, Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, and Root & Rebound, represented by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Asians Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.

The pleading charges “CDCR’s policy of referring people to ICE based on national origin has led to many U.S. residents and citizens being investigated, detained, and put into the deportation pipeline based on false and racialized assumptions of individuals’ immigration statuses, in violation of the California Constitution’s equal protection clause and state anti-discrimination law.”

The ACLU also claimed in a statement CDCR’s action have led to “peoples’ exclusion from rehabilitative programs that enable them to reduce their time in custody; alternative-to-custody programs; lower-security housing placements; and educational and vocational programs that help people transition back to their families and communities, in violation of the California Values Act.”

The lawsuit explains “CDCR refers people in its custody to ICE for detention and deportation after they have served their time in prison, contributing to a dual system of justice that targets immigrants, refugees, and anyone CDCR officers unilaterally—and often incorrectly—assume was born outside the U.S.”

And CDCR “makes these decisions using nothing more than their perception of an incarcerated person’s place of birth, race, ethnicity, or how well they speak English,” the suit alleges. 

Carmen Garcia, Root & Rebound’s executive director, said, “CDCR’s unconstitutional practices of referring incarcerated individuals to ICE add yet another significant and discriminatory barrier for people and their families who are trying to break the cycle of incarceration.”

The ACLU statement charges, “This lawsuit exposes CDCR’s unconstitutional, racist, and wholly voluntary policies and practices that tear families apart in California every day, coming just as the HOME Act has been introduced in the state legislature to ensure immigrant Californians who earn release from state prison under broadly supported criminal justice reforms are not transferred to ICE. 

“As the legislature works towards passing the HOME Act and this lawsuit advances, plaintiffs and their attorneys are calling on Governor Newsom to protect Californians and halt CDCR’s voluntary cooperation with ICE today.”

Carl Takei, Criminal Justice Reform Program Manager at the Asian Law Caucus, said, “A few weeks ago outside San Quentin State Prison, Governor Newsom said, ‘we have to be in the homecoming business.’ For an untold number of Californians, homecoming remains a mirage as long as CDCR opts to keep its unconstitutional, illegal, and racist policies.”

Takei added, “Across the state, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Californians and their families are sharing their stories to bring about change that reunites loved ones and builds stronger communities. With a stroke of a pen, Governor Newsom can embrace their calls to action and fulfill his own promise to make California a state that welcomes people home.”

Carl Takei, Criminal Justice Reform Program Manager at the Asian Law Caucus, “Through its unlawful discrimination and targeting of immigrants and refugees, the California prison system is undermining Californian values of equality, fairness, and justice. This contradicts the alleged mission of the California prison system to provide people with the tools to return to their communities, through access to rehabilitative and educational programs.”

Singh added, “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.”

“Throughout my incarceration, CDCR informed me I had an active ICE hold. Knowing that caused me so much fear and anxiety throughout the years, believing I would never be able to return home to my family,” said Ny Nourn, Co-Director of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and an advocate for other immigrant community members and survivors of domestic violence. 

Nourn added, “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. CDCR continues to work with ICE to discriminate against foreign-born people like me instead of helping keep our communities safe and families together.”

The ACLU statement noted a 2020 case, in which CDCR “illegally transferred” Brian Bukle, who is a Riverside County Black resident and U.S. resident for more than 50 years since he was a young child,  to ICE custody, “after denying him access to an alternative-to-custody program. ICE illegally incarcerated him for 36 days” because prison officials only suspected he was foreign-born.

The ACLU noted the lawsuit’s two individual plaintiffs were “referred to ICE upon entering CDCR custody, jeopardizing their access to important housing and rehabilitation services, and causing serious harm to their wellbeing.”

Plaintiff Roth Chan, a U.S.-born citizen whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Cambodia, was classified as “Mexican” by CDCR officials “triggering an illegal, CDCR-invented policy known as a ‘Potential Hold,’ which state officials use to send information about people to ICE and to deny them placement in various prison programs. She has repeatedly notified CDCR of her U.S. citizenship, but has been ignored,” said the ACLU.

The lawsuit notes Chan “devastated” to find out the potential hold status “blocked her access to alternative-to-custody programs, rehabilitation programs, and early release.”

“It put me in a deep depression,” said Roth Chan. “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. I think about it every night.”

The ACLU also references the story of Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong, a U.S. citizen born in a refugee camp in Thailand, who was imprisoned in 1998. Even though Pangthong had become a U.S. citizen the previous year, he had to live “with the threat of ICE detention and deportation for nearly 19 years, until an attorney was finally able to convince ICE to release the hold and Pangthong could return home.”

“For nearly two decades, I lived with the fear and trauma caused by CDCR’s discriminatory ICE notification policy based on where I was born. I tried for 19 years to explain that I’m a U.S. citizen,” said Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong, who works with Southeast Asian communities as the digital media director for the organization Empowering Marginalized Asian Communities in Stockton.

Pangthong added, “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. 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.”


Sign Up

Join our mailing list.