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Cambodian Refugee Leaves San Quentin With COVID-19 But Avoids ICE Detention

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Chanthon Bun, in orange mask, is greeted by supporters in San Francisco Wednesday after being released from San Quentin State Prison. Bun was relieved he had not been transferred to ICE but learned later in the day that he had been infected with COVID-19 while in prison. (Courtesy of Anoop Prasad)

Chanthon Bun, a Cambodian refugee, was released from San Quentin State Prison Wednesday to two unexpected discoveries: he was not turned over to immigration officials for deportation, as he had feared, but he was infected with COVID-19, along with more than 1,000 others at San Quentin.

Bun, 41, was greeted at the prison gates in Marin County by friends and supporters who helped secure his release. According to Bun’s lawyer, Anoop Prasad with San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus Bun served 23 years for an armed robbery committed when he was 18. Friends took Bun to get a coronavirus test, since the disease has swept through San Quentin in recent weeks, and Bun tested positive. By Wednesday night, he had spiked a fever, Prasad said.

Faith leaders hold a sunrise vigil outside San Quentin State Prison Wednesday, calling for Chanthon Bun to be released, rather than transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Courtesy of Anoop Prasad)

Many expected Bun to be handed into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but he was allowed to walk free. An ICE agent had visited Bun last Friday and told him he would be picked up when prison officials processed him for release, according to Prasad. Bun is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. but because he has a felony conviction, ICE is able to place him in deportation proceedings.

“It’s a miracle that I got released and it’s a blessing," said Bun Thursday speaking by phone from a residence attached to a Bay Area church, where he is self-quarantining. "Pandemic or not, I’d rather be released out here than to be handed over to ICE,” he said. Testing positive for COVID-19, Bun knew his situation would have gotten worse had he been transferred to ICE.

As a small child, Bun and his family fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s, made it to a Thai refugee camp and were eventually resettled by the U.S. government in Los Angeles. Growing up in a traumatized community with no mental health care, Bun, like other young refugees, wound up abusing alcohol and joining a gang, as he described in a recent episode of the KALW Radio series “Uncuffed.”


Prasad said it’s unclear whether someone in the state prison system or Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office intervened on Bun’s behalf.

“We're incredibly grateful that he is home and able to receive medical care in a safe environment,” Prasad said. “He's immunocompromised, with a rare blood disorder, and may not have survived ICE custody — and may have also possibly infected other people.”

While it is the policy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to cooperate with ICE, it's not required by state or federal law, Prasad said.

Advocates have long been pressing CDCR and the governor to halt the policy, particularly in light of California’s sanctuary law. Those calls have become more urgent in recent months as the coronavirus began raging through both the state prison system and ICE detention centers.

In April, the ACLU sued California officials to stop transferring immigrants to ICE during the pandemic, but on May 13, the California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that the transfers could continue. One week earlier, the first person died in ICE custody, at San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center.

Bun’s release came the same day that state lawmakers questioned CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz about the policy. At a hearing of the state Senate Public Safety Committee Wednesday in Sacramento, Sen. Scott Weiner said the transfers risk spreading the virus further.

“When we transfer to ICE, we are sending people who may be medically vulnerable themselves to private prison ICE detention facilities," Weiner said. Adding that they believe that one in three detainees has COVID-19. "These are COVID hot spots,” he said, "we need to stop transferring people in the custody of our state prisons to ICE detention facilities ... immediately.”

Diaz replied that state prison officials do not transport inmates to ICE. But he said when immigration authorities place a detainer on an immigrant in prison, CDCR does inform ICE of the release date, just as officials do with any other law enforcement agency.

“If an individual has served their term ... and there is a hold or a warrant by ICE as a pickup, they're picked up by ICE, just like any other law enforcement agency who may have a hold on an individual to take into their custody for their reasons,” he said, adding that if there's a hold, they will continue to enforce it.

Newsom’s office did not return a request for comment.

The Oakland-based immigration law clinic Centro Legal de la Raza found that more than a third of the 159 immigrants in ICE custody in Northern California who were assisted by legal aid groups between March 1 and May 23 had been transferred to ICE from California prisons. And Prasad said roughly 10% of all state prison inmates are subject to an ICE detainer.

Bun was originally sentenced to 49 years for his part in an armed robbery, in which no one was hurt, Prasad said. A 2015 law allows inmates who had committed crimes in their youth and served at least 15 years to apply for early parole. In February, after a lengthy process to prove he had turned his life around, Gov. Newsom granted Bun parole, Prasad said.

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Hanging over Bun’s release, however, was the threat that he could be locked up in an ICE facility and eventually deported. Bun said he spent his final days at San Quentin readying himself for that possibility and the risk of catching COVID-19 in ICE detention —not realizing he was already infected.

“I scrounged up extra masks that I could find in there, extra cleaner and sanitizer. I had a whole care package for myself with my medications and stuff,” Bun said. “I was ready to somehow battle COVID in ICE because I knew that once I got to ICE, either I protect myself or get sick in there.”

He paused, then added, “I was actually contemplating writing a last letter to my family ... letting them know I’m proud of them and I got to see them grow. Leaving them with words of joy.”

Now that he’s free, he won’t have to write that letter.

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