State Lawmakers Urge Newsom to Stop Transferring People in Prison to ICE in Pandemic

COVID-19 is raging through the California prison system, including San Quentin State Prison. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated Tuesday, July 7, 12:00 p.m.

Dozens of state lawmakers called on Gov. Gavin Newsom Monday to stop California prison officials from transferring people to federal immigration detention during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter signed by 44 members of the state Senate and Assembly — as well as 18 local elected officials, including Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland and Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton — the political leaders said ending the transfers is urgently needed to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 between detention systems in California.

“When the health of Californians in custody is at risk, that puts the health of all Californians at risk,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, an Oakland Democrat leading the effort. “Once a Californian has paid their debt to society ... they’ve earned their release from state prison or a jail, they should be released back to their community, back to their family, and not be funneled into Trump’s deportation machine ... where they can be sent to circumstances where their health and life are put at risk.”

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The request came as COVID-19 is raging through both the California prison system and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. In California, as of Monday, a total of 5,346 people in the state prison system and 949 state prison staff have been diagnosed with the virus. In addition, 2,742 people in ICE detention have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 45 ICE employees — and scores of private prison workers — at detention centers nationally, including more than 200 people who have been sickened at ICE facilities in California.

Non-citizen immigrants, even those with longstanding, legal permanent residence, can be subject to deportation if they have a criminal record. Immigration officials commonly issue a “detainer,” requesting that prison officials notify them when an incarcerated immigrant is set to be released.

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Last week Ralph Diaz, the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a state Senate hearing that his agency does inform ICE of incarcerated immigrants’ release dates, and coordinates a transfer to ICE agents who take the person into custody. He said he had no plan to end the practice, which he said was the same way that CDCR responds to a hold placed by any other law enforcement agency.

But in their letter to Newsom, Bonta and the other lawmakers said California is under no legal obligation to assist the federal government with deportations, and the governor and CDCR can end the policy.

Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Immigrant advocates said Monday that transfers from CDCR are the primary way that people are being taken into ICE custody in California since the start of the pandemic. CDCR transferred 575 people to ICE between Jan. 1 to May 13, according to Angela Chan, policy director for the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus.

Chan said she is aware of only one instance this year in which a person was released from state prison and not picked up by ICE — that’s the case of Chanthon Bun, a Cambodian refugee who was set free from San Quentin State Prison last week after earning early parole, having served 23 years of a 49-year sentence for an armed robbery he committed as a teenager.

On the day of his release, Bun went for a COVID-19 test and found out he had been infected inside the prison. If he had been transferred to ICE custody, he would have taken the virus with him.

Chan said Bun's legal team at the Asian Law Caucus is still trying to learn why Bun was not transferred to ICE, even though the agency had a detainer to arrest him. ICE officials did not answer a request for an explanation.

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However in response to the call by California lawmakers for prisons to stop cooperating with the immigration agency, ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes released this statement: "Policy makers who strive to make it more difficult to remove dangerous criminal aliens and aim to stop the cooperation of local officials and business partners, harm the very communities whose welfare they have sworn to protect."

ICE maintains that the safest place to take immigrants into custody is inside a locked facility of another law enforcement agency.

Bonta disputed that notion.

"I think when they say 'safe,' they mean 'easy,'" he said.

"It’s certainly not safer for the individual who’s being put at risk of [exposure to] COVID in detention centers. ... They don't need to be in a detention center to go through [civil deportation] proceedings. They can show up to court, they can file their paperwork, they can do all that from the safety of their community and their family."

Bonta added that making transfers convenient for ICE is not the state's responsibility.

"Our issue is to look out for the health, safety and welfare of Californians," he said.