Civil Rights Groups File Damages Claims Against California State Officials for Transferring Four Formerly Incarcerated People to ICE Detention

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SAN FRANCISCO – The ACLU Foundation of Northern California and Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus have filed damages claims against Governor Gavin Newsom, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison on behalf of four people who were formerly incarcerated in California prisons but were transferred to the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) instead of being released back to their loved ones and communities.

According to the claims, state officials’ practice of continuing transfers to ICE during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the widely documented, horrific conditions in ICE detention centers, violates people’s constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. State officials’ coordination with ICE in other ways—such as permitting G4S Secure Solutions, an ICE private contractor, to arrest people at CDCR facilities, and accepting ICE detainers based on error-ridden databases—also violates state and federal law.

Each claim documents a different facet of California prison officials’ widespread practice of funneling immigrant community members into ICE’s detention and deportation system, even as COVID-19 continues to sweep through immigration detention facilities.

Tien Pham, who came to this country as a child refugee, was found suitable for release from the California prison system after 20 years of incarceration because he has demonstrated his rehabilitation and has a reentry plan. While at San Quentin State Prison, he obtained his college degree and worked with the famed San Quentin News, among other personal accomplishments. As his release date approached, CDCR and Governor Newsom decided to expedite his parole process due to the COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin (at that time one of the largest outbreaks in the country). However, CDCR transferred him to G4S, a private ICE contractor. ICE delivered Pham to a detention facility in Aurora, Colorado, where he remains under threat of deportation. He is again in danger of contracting COVID-19 behind bars, as an outbreak at the facility has infected dozens of detained people and staff.                 

“I’m supposed to be with my family,” said Pham. “I have paid my debt to society and have been rehabilitated, but the state has punished me twice by transferring me to ICE for deportation. I want to stop the physical and mental suffering of people like me who state officials are turning over to ICE.” Read his claim here.

John Victorio has two sons, both U.S. citizens. Earlier this year, he expected CDCR to honor his early release date so that he could be reunited with his family and continue his journey of recovery and mental health treatment. But CDCR transferred Victorio to ICE custody through G4S, which took him to the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, California, where he remains detained. While in ICE custody, he contracted COVID-19 and suffered all the attendant symptoms, including difficulty breathing. He continues to suffer from adverse health effects. Once athletic, he now has great difficulty breathing and is reliant on an inhaler.

“When I thought I was going to be released after serving my time in CDCR, I thought I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I was ready to see my kids. But now that they’ve transferred me to ICE, I don’t even see a light,” said Victorio. “I’m still doing time when I already did my time.” Read his claim here.

Brian Bukle, a US citizen, was transferred by state prison officials to ICE custody even though, as a citizen, ICE had no basis to arrest and detain him. ICE issued its detainer based on information from its electronic databases, which are notoriously riddled with errors. (The ACLU of Southern California won a trial court ruling last fall holding that ICE cannot issue detainers for the removal of people from the US based on information in these databases, precisely because they contain so many errors.) He was transferred to the Mesa Verde Detention Facility. An immigration judge and detention facility staff urged Bukle to sign paperwork consenting to his deportation, despite the fact that he is a U.S. citizen and has made a home and raised a family in this country. After four weeks, ICE finally released him, acknowledging that he should not have been in detention.

“When I learned that CDCR was turning me over to ICE, and not to my family, I was terrified. My whole heart felt empty. I had no one to cry out to but Christ,” said Bukle. “It was important for me to file this claim because I want justice for the pain I went through, and because I want state officials to stop doing this to other people. I want them to stop this nightmare of uncertainty and fear.” Read his claim here.

José Alcides Argueta Rivera works in restaurants and construction to support his four-year-old daughter, who is a U.S. citizen. He was due to be released from CDCR custody at the end of July 2020. However, four days before his release date, CDCR transferred him to ICE custody. He was taken to the Mesa Verde Detention Center, where he remained for almost two months without knowing if or when he would be able to reunite with his daughter. CDCR transferred Alcides to ICE custody just as a COVID-19 outbreak was spreading through Mesa Verde. While there, Alcides, who suffers from chronic respiratory disease, was exposed to another detained person who had tested positive for COVID-19. ICE released him after almost two months in detention.

“It was a great injustice,” said Alcides. “I had the right to return to my daughter, to begin to reunite with her and my community, to begin working and to rebuild my life, but CDCR denied me that for 58 days. I feared for my life.” Read his claim here.

Vasudha Talla, Immigrants’ Rights Program Director at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, issued the following statement: “CDCR is under no legal obligation to transfer members of our communities to ICE detention facilities, which are rife with COVID-19 outbreaks. State officials violate federal and state law each time they transfer people to ICE. If California officials truly value making this state a sanctuary for immigrant communities, they will put a stop to their practice of transferring people from prisons into ICE custody.”

Jenny Zhao, Litigation Staff Attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, issued the following statement: “Despite their rhetoric about second chances, CDCR and Governor Newsom actively facilitate the deportation of immigrants who have served their time and are ready to rejoin their families. And state officials have continued business as usual during this pandemic with full knowledge of the life-threatening conditions in ICE custody. Their actions have devastated immigrant communities and worsened the public health crisis.”

About the ACLU Foundation of Northern California

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California has been a guardian of justice, fairness, equality, and freedom, working to protect and advance civil liberties for all Californians since 1934.

About Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus (ALC)

ALC was founded in 1972 as the nation's first legal and civil rights Asian American organization. Recognizing that social, economic, political, and racial inequalities continue to exist in the United States, ALC is committed to the pursuit of equality and justice for all sectors of our society, with a specific focus directed toward addressing the needs of low-income, immigrant, and underserved Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.


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