As a Superior Court judge in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years, I sentenced hundreds of people to our jails and prisons. Simon Liu was one of them, and his experience has led me to advocate that others be spared what he subsequently endured.
I sentenced Liu to 26 years in prison in 1998 after he was convicted of crimes stemming from a home robbery. A then-16-year-old who had immigrated to the U.S. from China as a young boy, he was charged as an adult.
After serving more than 17 years of his sentence, Liu was released following a rigorous review by the state parole board. While in prison, he had turned his life around. He learned to read and write in English, completed his GED and was trained in programming and other skills.
Despite earning his release, however, Liu was then detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency informed him that he was to be deported to China, where he had no family and only faint memories of having ever lived.
Fortunately, a pardon by Gov. Gavin Newsom, which I supported, put the brakes on his deportation. Today, Liu is a compassionate, productive, self-supporting member of his Bay Area community. The governor’s pardon noted “that he is living an upright life and has demonstrated his fitness for restoration of civic rights and responsibilities.”
A bill by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) will prevent more people like Liu from facing deportation after imprisonment even if they aren’t fortunate enough to secure a gubernatorial pardon. Under her legislation, Assembly Bill 1306, if certain qualifying noncitizens serve their time in prison and earn their release, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is prohibited from turning them over to federal authorities for deportation.
While existing state laws limit California law enforcement officials in conducting and cooperating with immigration enforcement, state prisons have been excluded from these protections and routinely cooperate with ICE. Carrillo’s bill, which is scheduled for a vote by the state Senate as soon as Monday, would prohibit California prisons from facilitating ICE detention of immigrants who are released under broadly supported criminal justice reforms.
This bill will thereby end the unjust double punishment of incarceration plus deportation of not just undocumented immigrants but also green card holders and even naturalized U.S. citizens. Recent reporting by the L.A. Times demonstrated the alarming extent to which the state prison system goes out of its way to report U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to ICE, often racially profiling people in custody. The agency has been “relying on racist assumptions and ignoring their own records,” according to a report by the ACLU of Northern California and others.
AB 1306 is an important step toward addressing these abuses and fully realizing recent reforms that allow resentencing and release to address past injustices. It will help ensure that qualified citizens and noncitizens alike have an opportunity to reunite with their families and communities.
Consider the case of Sandra Castañeda, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 2002 after a man fired from the window of her van, killing a teenager, as she drove friends to Taco Bell in South-Central L.A. The shooter was never arrested, and though Castañeda, then 20, did not commit the crime herself and had no criminal record, she was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.
Sixteen years later, after the state Legislature narrowed the felony murder law, a state judge vacated Castañeda’s conviction and ordered her freed. Yet rather than let her go home, prison officials arranged for Castañeda, a legal resident who had been in the U.S. since she was 9, to be transferred to ICE’s custody on the very day she was released. As a result, she spent another year incarcerated and fighting deportation at an immigration detention center in rural Georgia before an immigration judge finally freed her.
Castañeda poignantly recalled the ordeal in an interview with KQED: “You’re already dealing with the roller coaster emotions of coming home. And then they tell you, ‘Oh, never mind, you’re going to go to ICE.’ So now I’ve got to go sit at this place wondering if I’m going to get deported. … And being in the detention center, you hear about these people committing suicide because they don’t want to go back to their country.”
The Senate should pass and the governor should sign this bill to ensure that the state stops unjustly denying second chances to rehabilitated immigrants who have paid their debt to society.
LaDoris H. Cordell is a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge and the author of “Her Honor: My Life on the Bench … What Works, What’s Broken, and How to Change it.”