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Judge: ICE Cannot Deport Sandra Castaneda After Exoneration

July 20, 2022 News

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Judge: ICE Cannot Deport Sandra Castaneda After Exoneration

Community victories mean Sandra Castaneda, who was incarcerated for a crime she didn’t commit, may be home soon

Californians are organizing for the VISION Act (AB 937) so that no others are unjustly detained and deported by ICE

SACRAMENTO – Following widespread outrage by elected representatives and people across California that Los Angeles resident Sandra Castaneda was exonerated by a judge and still detained unlawfully by ICE, Sandra’s family and supporters are celebrating a new immigration court ruling that affirms ICE lacks any justification for detaining and deporting her. Planning to appeal the immigration court’s ruling, ICE is still detaining Sandra at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. The detention center was recently the focus of an Intercept investigation into its horrific patterns of sexual assault, medical neglect, and abuse. Sandra, her lawyers, and her family are eagerly awaiting her homecoming and are confident ICE’s last-ditch efforts will not stand.

“I was wrongly incarcerated for 19 years, and cheered when California legislators took action to fix these injustices in our criminal legal system,” said Sandra Castaneda. “I’m also grateful to Governor Newsom for commuting my sentence. Last summer, I was exonerated by a judge and ordered immediately released from prison. Instead, on the day I should have been released, ICE detained me and took me straight to Lumpkin, Georgia. ICE may think it can act with impunity but today we know that people like me have power to hold them accountable. I can’t wait to be back with my family and rebuild my life.”

Sandra came to California as a legal permanent resident when she was 9 years old. At 20, her life changed when she drove friends to get food one night. Some of her friends were part of a gang, while others were not. The gang members in her car spotted members of a rival gang and suddenly fired guns out of the car, injuring one person and tragically killing another. Despite not having touched a gun, Sandra was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.

While incarcerated, Sandra served as an advocate with the Young Women’s Freedom Center, lead self-help groups, and taught her peers about the Prison Rape Elimination Act. In July 2021, as a result of California’s criminal justice reform legislation, a judge reviewed Sandra’s case, vacated the convictions, and ordered her immediate release from prison. Her mother and sisters were ready to welcome her home, but ICE picked her up and transported her to the Stewart Detention Center.

“By exonerating Sandra, California upheld its best values of justice and freedom, but as long as the state prison system voluntarily chooses to collaborate with ICE we can never be the state we strive to be,” said Anoop Prasad, a senior staff attorney at Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus. “In August, California Senators and Governor Newsom can pass and sign the VISION Act and break this cycle of senseless trauma and family separation.”

Californians are contacting ICE Chief Counsel Kerry Doyle this week and urging them to drop the agency’s appeal efforts and abide by the immigration court’s ruling. Community members are also raising funds to support Sandra’s bond and re-entry, and urging California’s prison system and ICE to release Yeng Lee, a Hmong refugee who has been wrongfully incarcerated for 23 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Background on VISION Act

In June, marking one year since California aided ICE’s tragic deportation of domestic violence survivor Gabby Solano, California parents, community groups, faith leaders, union workers, re-entry counselors, other residents in the ICE Out of CA coalition, and state legislators rallied in Sacramento for the VISION Act. The widely-supported bill has passed the Assembly and two Senate committees, and is ready for a vote by the full Senate this summer.

A poll conducted by UC San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center last year found that two-thirds of voters back the VISION Act. The bill is co-sponsored by 25 California legislators and supported by the California Democratic Party, Black Legislative Caucus, Latino Legislative Caucus, and the API Legislative Caucus; over 180 organizations; Black Lives Matter-California; the Law Enforcement Action Partnership; veterans groups; and several key labor unions and federations, along with numerous Jewish organizations and Rabbis.

The Alliance for Boys and Men of Color estimates that transfers to ICE of people eligible for release from local jails alone cost $7.3 million in 2018 to 2019. Meanwhile, while only 7% of non-citizens in the U.S. are Black, Black immigrants made up 20% of people facing deportation on “criminal grounds” in the U.S. in 2016, according to data from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

At least eight counties in California have already ended the unjust practice of transferring immigrant community members to ICE, as have Illinois, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.