Sandra Castañeda talks with lawyer Anoop Prasad through a video call, in the Asian Law Caucus offices in San Francisco on Aug. 5, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
On the morning of July 27, 2021, Sandra Castañeda woke with a mixture of elation and dread. She was about to be released from prison after 19 years. What she wanted more than anything was to walk out of the California Institution for Women in Chino and head home for a reunion with her family in Los Angeles. She had imagined this day for so long.
“As a lifer, you want to get out of prison so bad,” she said. “But when it's there, you freak out,” wondering what freedom will be like, she said.
Castañeda, then 39, had spent nearly half of her life behind bars. She’d been sentenced to 40 years to life for murder, even though she didn’t actually kill anyone.
While Castañeda was in prison, California had enacted a series of criminal justice reforms, including one that allowed her to be resentenced. A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles had vacated Castañeda’s murder conviction and ordered her release.
But Castañeda didn’t walk free. Instead, she was loaded into a white van operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Castañeda’s story highlights how noncitizens, even longtime legal residents with green cards like Castañeda, are routinely funneled from state prison into the federal deportation system — even after the convictions that would make them deportable have been overturned. In a clash with state policy, legal records show, ICE and the federal immigration courts are disregarding state reforms that are letting people out of prison and dismissing old convictions.
With the help of others familiar with her case, Castañeda, a woman with a cascade of dark curls and an infectious laugh, explained how that July day unfolded and what it meant — for her, and potentially for thousands of other noncitizens who have had their convictions dismissed.
From prison to ICE custody
At 8 a.m., Colby Lenz, an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, pulled into the parking lot of the prison in Chino, to await Castañeda’s release and give her a ride home.
But at 9 a.m. she watched as the guard in the tower opened the prison gate and the white ICE van rolled in. She saw guards walk Castañeda out and load her into the van. Lenz says Castañeda’s friends inside the facility were watching, too.
“Some of Sandra's close friends had come as close as they could to this area and were calling out to her,” she said. “They were basically telling her that they loved her, and were certainly distressed at what they were seeing.”
The van drove Castañeda to the ICE field office in San Bernardino. Lenz followed in her car. By 10 a.m. Castañeda was in a holding cell and Lenz was making urgent calls to Anoop Prasad, an immigration lawyer with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, who agreed to take on Castañeda’s immigration case pro bono.
“Anoop and I were tag teaming, calling the ICE office,” said Lenz. “We both talked to some of the officers there, trying to convince them that this was not a legal detention.”
Prasad said he even convinced the LA County District Attorney’s Office, which had originally prosecuted Castañeda, to call ICE and explain that her murder conviction had been vacated. But ICE seemed determined to keep her in custody.
Gang friendships and a shooting
Castañeda’s original conviction was connected to a murder that took place in 2002, when a teenage girl was shot and killed — and Castañeda was there. But the events of that night are rooted in the early chapters of her story.
Long before Castañeda was born, her family straddled the border with Mexico. Her grandmother was born in the U.S. Her mother and father were from the Mexican border city of Mexicali. When Castañeda was a little girl, the family spent time in both countries. Eventually her parents settled in LA, leaving her and her older sister with relatives in Mexicali. By the time Castañeda was 9, her parents had separated and her mother had started a new family. But an aunt and uncle in LA brought Castañeda and her sister to the U.S. on green cards, raising them along with their own children.
That aunt, Virginia Reyes, remembers Castañeda as a quiet kid who didn’t cause trouble.
“Sandrita was totally calm,” said Reyes in Spanish. “She was not a difficult girl.”
Reyes and her husband ran a clothing factory in South Central LA, assembling garments for the fashion industry. They called it Sandra’s Fashions. They employed more than 20 workers, Reyes said.
Reyes and her husband put in really long hours, building the business to support the family. That left Castañeda to fend for herself a lot as a kid.
“They’d leave early, they’d come home real late,” she said. “They’d work seven days a week. So it was always work, work, work, work.”
Being involved with the family business taught her a strong work ethic, Castañeda said. But the uncertain bonds of her childhood also left her yearning for a sense of belonging.
In junior high school, Castañeda made friends with some tough kids who were part of a gang. Her aunt tried to protect her by putting her in a Catholic school. But it didn’t help.
Castañeda never got in trouble with the law. But that changed on the night of May 10, 2002, when she was 20. Castañeda later testified that she was driving some friends to Taco Bell in her van around midnight, when a guy in the van told her to slow down. Then suddenly, he started firing out the window.
Castañeda is cautious when talking about the crime, because, even two decades later, she’s worried about gang retaliation. So KQED has agreed not to use the names of the victims or the names or gang monikers of those involved in the shooting. And Castañeda asked that Prasad, her immigration lawyer, be the one to describe what happened.
“One of the people in the van thought they saw someone in the neighborhood who was from a rival gang,” Prasad told me. “He asked her to slow down, and she — didn't really know what was going on — slowed down. The person pulled out a gun and started shooting from the car.”
The bullets hit two teenagers who were sitting on the front steps of an apartment building in South Central. An 18-year-old was shot in the leg — and he recovered. But the 15-year-old girl beside him was killed. In a panic, Castañeda drove on.
“She stopped a couple of blocks later,” Prasad recounted. “Police were already there on the scene. And she was the only one who was arrested. Everyone else ran away.”
Castañeda was taken to jail. A California law at the time — known as the felony murder rule — said that if a person dies while a felony is being committed, anyone involved could be found guilty of murder, whether or not they intended or committed the killing. Under the law, prosecutors charged Castañeda with murder because she was driving the van, even though she herself didn’t kill anyone.
“It was a tough-on-crime era,” said Prasad. “Across the state, anyone who was remotely connected or even present at the scene would [often] get hit with a murder charge … So I think the DA just aggressively prosecuted and used this overly broad theory to charge her with murder.”
Castañeda went on trial. But her aunt didn’t think the police detectives were doing enough to find the actual killer.
“I tried to be a detective myself,” recalled Reyes. “I went places I never imagined going, trying to track down the person who had done this. I even went to parties, dressing up to look younger. I put up fliers around town with his photo on them.”
Reyes had no luck — until one day, after the trial was over, she says she saw the man at a car wash. She was afraid he would recognize her, but she pulled over and got on the phone.
“I called the police and I called the lawyer. And they just replied, ‘Oh, the case is closed.’” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I felt so powerless.”
The LA Police Department now says the case is still open. But no one else has ever been arrested or prosecuted for the shooting, according to officials at the LA County District Attorney’s Office.
Castañeda was convicted of second-degree murder and attempted murder. The sentence came with enhancements because a gun was used in the killing, and there was gang involvement: 40 years to life behind bars.
Reyes says when she heard the verdict, she was in shock. Castañeda had no criminal history and insisted she hadn’t planned to hurt anyone. Reyes expected her niece to face punishment, but not more than a couple of years.
“How was it possible that this person was still walking free and Sandra was going to be locked up for so many years?” Reyes wondered.
Coming of age behind bars
At first when Castañeda went to prison, back in 2003, she was angry. But over time she developed a new perspective on the crime.
“It was not a planned situation — it just kind of happened. But I still feel that I did have a part because I was the driver,” she said. “So today I know that back then I had choices. But as a young person, I didn't know that I did ... Today I do understand and I take full responsibility for my part.”
In prison, Castañeda sought out peer support groups. She took college courses. She worked in the carpentry, paint and auto shops, learning new skills and finding satisfaction in physical work. She also became a leader in the hospice program, caring for women who were dying in prison.
“I got to know who I was as a person, so I'm not bitter at all,” she said. “Prison made me the woman that I am today.”
Castañeda — once a shy child — learned she’s resilient and a go-getter. She learned not to be afraid to speak up for what she believes and to advocate for others.
'[T]here's always that little hope ... '
Then, in 2018, something happened that Castañeda never expected.
The California Legislature dramatically restricted the felony murder rule, the law that led to her conviction. Lawmakers cited the injustice of a law that disproportionately affected women and people of color. State courts had even questioned whether the old law was constitutional. The reform was part of a broader movement in California and elsewhere to reduce mass incarceration and over-punishment.
For Castañeda, it meant she could ask a judge to vacate her murder conviction and give her a new sentence. A Stanford University law clinic connected her with a pro bono lawyer who helped her petition for resentencing. The head of the state prison system even wrote a letter of support.
Castañeda tried to manage her expectations. As a lifer, she knew she might die in prison.
“But I mean, there's always that little hope in there, you know? I think as human beings, we want to believe that something good is going to come out,” she said.
Trying all her options, Castañeda also applied for clemency from Gov. Gavin Newsom. And in Nov. 2020, recognizing her rehabilitation, Newsom commuted her sentence, making her immediately eligible for parole.
Then, something even bigger happened. In July of 2021, a California judge approved her petition for resentencing and dismissed her murder conviction entirely, giving her a much lesser charge, accessory after the fact. Finally, Castañeda was ordered released. She couldn’t stop crying.
“I was worse than the Llorona,” she said. “I just couldn't believe it.”
A green card is a privilege
California’s criminal justice system was saying Castañeda could go home and start to build a life as a free woman. But the federal system had a different goal. Under U.S. immigration law, having a green card is a privilege that can be taken away. So if an immigrant who’s not a citizen, even a lawful permanent resident like Castañeda, commits certain crimes, they can lose their legal status and be deported.
Today, advocates note, people can lose their green cards for a laundry list of reasons, like shoplifting, drug charges and failure to appear in court. Yet some of these have actually been decriminalized by states like California.
“California over the last decade or so has recognized that the lock-’em-up mentality … led to a ballooning of our prison and jail population, but didn’t actually result in safer communities,” said Rose Cahn, attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.
She says the way federal immigration law is enforced should recognize state criminal justice reforms.
“A conviction that's been dismissed at the state level — where you have DAs of all political stripes saying, ‘Hey, this doesn't need to be on someone's record’ — should not be on someone's record, plain and simple,” said Cahn.
But that’s not happening. ICE lawyers are still pushing to deport people like Castañeda, based on convictions that have been reduced or even dismissed. And they’re backed up by rulings in the federal immigration courts that say immigrants are still deportable if their conviction and sentence was reduced, unless the change was “based on a procedural or substantive defect in the underlying criminal proceeding.”
The number of people caught in this situation isn’t tracked by any agency, but some immigration experts estimate it affects thousands nationally.
An ICE spokesperson, who declined to be named, said the agency’s officers make decisions about who to pursue “in a responsible manner, informed by their experience as law enforcement professionals and in a way that best protects against the greatest threats to the homeland.” And she noted that ICE prosecutors can and do exercise discretion in deciding whether to prosecute individual cases.
In California, a sanctuary law prevents police and sheriffs from cooperating in immigration enforcement in most cases. But there’s a broad loophole for prisons. So the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state prison system, notifies ICE when they take in anyone who’s foreign born, then accommodates ICE requests to interview and take custody of immigrants at the time of their release, documents show. More than 1,600 people were turned over from California prisons to ICE in 2020, according to CDCR data obtained by the ACLU.
“Their policy is that they will report anyone who's not born in the U.S. and they will actively work to turn over anyone that ICE says they want to come and arrest … even if the person has been exonerated,” said Prasad. “It's really just an absurd policy.”
State prison officials say it’s not their job to decide whether someone’s deportable. They say they simply comply when ICE issues a detainer, a request to hold an incarcerated person for transfer.
“CDCR responds to detainers from all law enforcement agencies including local, state, and federal,” said CDCR spokesperson Vicky Waters.
As a result, immigrants who’ve served their prison sentences — and even those like Castañeda, who’ve been exonerated of crimes — get caught between the state, which aims to let them rejoin society, and the federal government, which wants to lock them up and deport them.
Detained and shipped to Georgia
For Castañeda, all this meant that on the day she was released from prison after serving 19 years — for a murder she herself didn’t commit — a new legal battle was just beginning.
As she sat in a holding cell at the ICE field office in San Bernardino that July morning in 2021, agents were trying to figure out where to send her.
“I was on the phone with the deportation officer, and he's saying, ‘I don't know if we're going to find a bed. And if we don't, I will release her on an ankle monitor,’” said Prasad.
Around 3 p.m. an officer did come and attach an electronic GPS monitor to her ankle, Castañeda said, to release her from detention but keep her under surveillance. She began to think she might be able to go home after all. But the hours ticked by.
“And then he came back and said, ‘Give me your leg. I'm going to cut that off of you.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because I found you a spot,’” Castañeda recounted.
Castañeda’s hopes of freedom were dashed. She would be shipped 3,000 miles away from her family, to a facility in Georgia.
At 9 p.m., Castañeda was transferred to an ICE office in LA. She said she spent much of the night sitting on a hard bench.
At 3 a.m., agents drove her to the airport and handed her off to two plainclothes officers who took her on an early morning flight to Atlanta. She still hadn’t been able to talk to her lawyer, Prasad.
“I got a call from her the next day that she was in Georgia,” he said. “I knew it was probably Stewart. And immediately my heart sank a little.”
“They put me on a plane and sent me to the worst one that they could send me to,” said Castañeda. “It was scary.”
Immigration detention is not punishment for a crime. It’s civil detention of people awaiting deportation hearings. But Castañeda found conditions at Stewart a lot worse than a California prison. She was stuck in one room with 23 other people. She didn’t have a job or classes or a routine.
“There’s a lot of mold in there. Sometimes it'll be hot. Sometimes it'll be freezing,” she said. “It’s a bad place to do time.”
An ICE spokesperson assured KQED the facility has passed inspections and meets ICE detention standards, adding, “ICE is committed to ensuring that all those in the agency’s custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments.”
In an emailed statement to KQED, CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin said, “the safety, health and well-being of the individuals entrusted to our care is our top priority.” He added that the company does not “cut corners on care, staff or training” to meet federal standards.
'The system ... is designed to wear people down'
While Castañeda was adjusting at Stewart, Prasad went into overdrive. He filed briefs in immigration court to try to get her released. But ICE lawyers fought him at every turn.
“Rather than acknowledging that a state court had vacated the conviction, ICE aggressively pursued deportation,” he said.
And Prasad had a new worry. When Castañeda’s murder conviction was vacated, the judge had given her a lesser charge, accessory after the fact. In most of the country, that’s considered an aggravated felony. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled it is not. As long as Castañeda was in California, where the 9th Circuit holds sway, her crime wasn’t grounds for deportation. But she had been sent off to Georgia.
And Prasad was afraid that, as the weeks turned into months, Castañeda would get so discouraged, so weary of living behind bars, that she'd give up and let ICE deport her. That’s what happens to a lot of immigrants in detention, he said.
“The system at every step is designed to wear people down,” he said.
But Castañeda was not giving up. In fact, she had found a new sense of purpose. During her years in California prisons, she learned advocacy skills. And in Georgia, she wasn’t afraid to speak up.
She says she challenged guards when they spoke disrespectfully to the detained women. She filed grievances over violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. She questioned the COVID protocols, pushed for testing and social-distancing measures when women got sick. And, being bilingual, Castañeda stepped in to advocate for the women who spoke only Spanish.
“One of the counselors told me to stop helping those people, that they needed to do things for themself. And I told her, ‘Well, they don't speak English and … I'm only asking for toilet paper, shampoo,’” she said.
Lenz stayed in touch with Castañeda through video calls. She said Castañeda showed her surgical masks that other detained women had doctored up to read: #freesandra.
“She was kind of embarrassed that they were doing this,” Lenz said. “But it showed that she was part of building more of a collective culture there, a culture of standing up for each other.”
Castañeda had spent nearly a year in ICE detention when, finally, she got some welcome news. The California judge who had resentenced Castañeda had reviewed Prasad’s request to revisit her ruling and, “based on legal error,” reduced Castañeda’s sentence even further — to disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor that’s not considered a deportable crime anywhere in the country.
Then, at her hearing in July 2022, an immigration judge in Georgia ruled Castañeda was not deportable.
She was thrilled to think she could go free. But she had been on this roller coaster before.
“I was excited and I started feeling like, ‘Oh, my God, do I get happy?’” Castañeda said. “It was just, like, the mixed emotions again.”
Sure enough, ICE’s lawyers said they planned to appeal — and they wanted to keep Castañeda locked up while they did. Weeks went by before she could get a hearing where Prasad asked the judge to release her on bond.
“When the judge made the decision that he was going to give it to me, I just started crying,” she recalled.
Finally free after 20 years
Last August, the day that Castañeda had been awaiting for half her life finally arrived. She flew home to LA, where her family surrounded her with hugs at the airport.
“I didn't know if it was reality or dream,” she said. “Even my cousin, he kept looking at me like, ‘It feels like I’m dreaming, Sandra.’”
Castañeda was 40 and finally free after 20 years behind bars, and she had a lot of catching up to do.
The California Coalition for Women Prisoners set Castañeda up in a shared apartment in LA. She was eager to show off the bathroom, “with a door you can close,” and the bedroom that’s all her own.
Her aunt Virginia Reyes was thrilled to have Sandra home and plied her with homemade enchiladas. But after a few days, Castañeda had a craving for Chicken McNuggets.
At McDonald’s, Sandra used her new cellphone to take photos of her meal to send to her friends in state prison.
“They always want to know, ‘What do you eat? What are you doing?’” she said. “Everybody’s so happy for me.”
But Castañeda also had her mind on all the tasks she needed to tackle: getting a Social Security card, signing up for Medi-Cal and applying for a driver’s license, for starters.
There was something ironic in it. Driving is what got Castañeda into trouble all those years ago. But today regaining her license is one concrete step in reclaiming her life, even while other things remain out of her control, like ICE’s effort to deport her.
“These people are still messing with my life, even though I already paid for my crime,” she said. “I try not to think about it because it’s just bad energy, you know? So I’m just focused on what I need to do right now.”
She’s in a reentry program and imagining jobs where she can use her own life experience to counsel other immigrants caught between state criminal reforms and federal deportation policies.
Castañeda hopes eventually to apply for citizenship. “I was 20 years old when I got arrested, so … I didn't know that it’s so important to be able to get that citizenship if you're able to,” she said. “Today I know better.”
Pushing the Biden administration to honor state reforms
But gaining citizenship depends on remaining a legal U.S. resident. ICE lawyers are still trying to take her green card and get her deported. And they could succeed.
The Board of Immigration Appeals, the appellate level of the federal immigration courts, has ruled that, most of the time (PDF), it doesn’t matter (PDF) whether a state court vacated someone’s criminal conviction. And under President Donald Trump, then-Attorney General William Barr went further, ruling that immigration courts can also ignore when a state reduces a person’s sentence. The legal decisions say the fact that someone like Castañeda was convicted of a crime in the first place — even if the conviction was overturned — is enough reason to deport them, unless (as Prasad argued in Castañeda's case) there was a flaw in the original conviction.
“We’ve met with top leadership within the Department of Justice,” said Cahn of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “We have carried out this advocacy in both informal and formal ways through these meetings with administration officials, as well as in the courtrooms themselves, where we’re making arguments in front of immigration judges.”
The Department of Justice did not respond to KQED’s repeated requests for comment.
In addition, immigrant advocates are calling on the Biden administration to move away from the harsh approach to immigration enforcement pursued by ICE in the Trump era.
“ICE can just say we’re not going to choose to go after and deport these people,” said Prasad. “We don't need Congress to even step in here and fix it. It’s just one of those things that the Biden administration can just fix tomorrow.”
Advocates are also trying to close the loophole here in California and force the state prison system to stop transferring people to ICE in the first place. A bill to do that, called the Vision Act, failed in the Legislature last year. But Prasad says Newsom has the power to order the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to make the change.
“The biggest source of deportations in the state right now is our prison system. And these are folks who have been deemed that they should be coming home to their communities,” he said. “California needs to make a choice about if it’s going to stand by these reforms, or if it’s going to continue to turn people who have been ordered released over to ICE.”
This story has been updated to include a statement from CoreCivic.
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