California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has sent hundreds of people to Ice at the end of their prison sentences. Even though the law doesn’t require the transfers, and Newsom positions himself as a leader in the resistance to Donald Trump’s xenophobia, the Democratic governor continues to funnel immigrants into the president’s deportation machine.
In his inaugural speech in January 2019, Gavin Newsom said he would stand up to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, fight family separation and ensure California remains a “sanctuary for all”. But despite the state’s high-profile “sanctuary” law, intended to limit local law enforcement collaboration with Ice, CDCR has a close working relationship with federal immigration authorities.
When the governor ordered the expedited release of thousands of prisoners due to Covid, at least 78 people were sent from prisons to Ice. In the first three months of the crisis in northern California, state prisons and jails were the number one source of new Ice detentions (94 people, representing 59% of immigration arrests in the region), according to a study by advocacy group Centro Legal de la Raza.
Some prisoners aren’t aware that they are facing transfers until they happen.
When his release date came on 6 August and his sister was waiting on the other side of the barbed-wire fence to take him home, California prison guards did not let them reunite. Instead, officers handed the 41-year-old over to a private security contractor who shackled his hands, waist and legs, put him in a van and drove off. After 22 years in prison, Kao Saelee, was placed into US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) custody and flown 2,000 miles to an Ice jail in Louisiana. He is now facing deportation to Laos, a country his family fled as refugees when he was two years old.
In 2018 and 2019, he worked as an incarcerated firefighter, battling the kinds of blazes that are currently devastating huge swaths of the western US. California has for decades deployed thousands of incarcerated people to respond to wildfires, paying $2 to $5 a day for the grueling work, whether clearing brush or saving lives and property.
“I paid my debt to society, and I think I should have a chance to be with my family,” Saelee told the Guardian in a recent call from the Pine Prairie Ice jail. “What is the point of sending somebody back to a country where they don’t have no family?"
Saelee was born in Laos in 1979, the oldest of four. His parents were farmers and his family is of Mien descent, an ethnic minority that sided with the US during the Vietnam war and faced subsequent persecution. After fleeing to a refugee camp in Thailand, his family ended up in California in 1987.
“His story is similar to that of a lot of south-east Asian refugee youth who got resettled in neighborhoods in California that had really high rates of violence, poverty and incarceration,” said Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), who is representing Saelee.
Ice issues “detainers” for people in state custody eligible for deportation, which could include undocumented residents, as well as longtime Californians and refugees with green cards who could be deported due to their criminal record. CDCR complies with Ice requests, meaning the state proactively informs the agency about the release dates for prisoners with detainers – and facilitates the transfers.
While the state has no legal obligation to respond to Ice’s requests, Newsom has said this is standard protocol. When asked about the criticisms of this practice, he recently responded that “it’s been done historically” and was “appropriate”.
State data from January through May of this year suggests that CDCR released more than 500 people to Ice custody, according to the Asian Law Caucus. And the state has not backed away from this practice in the wake of mass Covid outbreaks within CDCR, which have claimed 60 lives so far.
Newsom’s policy risks shipping Covid from state prisons to Ice jails, and in some cases, to other nations, advocates said. Ice has been a key domestic and global spreader of the virus, regularly deporting sick detainees.