SAN FRANCISCO – California’s corrections agency routinely refers inmates who appear to be “foreign-born” to federal immigration authorities even if they are U.S. citizens and lawful residents, with some improperly detained by the government for weeks after their sentences, said a lawsuit filed in state court Thursday.
The lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Northern California also says that inmates singled out as being born outside the U.S. are denied access to rehabilitative programs.
Lawyers representing former and current inmates said in a news release announcing the lawsuit that California's policies and practices target immigrants and refugees based on place of birth, race and other prohibited classifications.
Corrections officials refer hundreds of people each year to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, for possible deportation, even those born in the U.S., the lawsuit states.
A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said they are reviewing the filing.
According to the complaint, Brian Bukle was referred to ICE because he was born outside the country even though corrections records indicated his status as a U.S. citizen. He was transferred into ICE custody at the end of his sentence in June 2020 — missing Father's Day with his son — and was released after more than a month only after an immigration lawyer intervened.
Corrections officials also flagged another plaintiff, Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong, to ICE even though he is a U.S. citizen born in a refugee camp. He spent nearly 19 years in prison fearing deportation and needed an attorney to remove the federal hold, the complaint states.
Pangthong said in a statement that at one point he almost hoped to stay in state custody “to just avoid being ripped apart from my home and family. Deportation would mean losing my loved ones and a life rooted in the community and state I call home.”
The complaint states that the state agency's department operations manual directs staff to refer inmates who are foreign-born to federal immigration authorities for possible deportation, even though many people born abroad are naturalized U.S. citizens or permanent residents who cannot be deported.
The complaint filed in Alameda County provides examples of inmates, some identified only by their initials, denied access to re-entry and other rehabilitative programs because they were flagged as foreign-born.
This story has been updated to correct that Brian Bukle is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.