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CA prison system sued for allegedly targeting foreign-born individuals

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The potential hold and ICE notification policies violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.


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Senior Staff

MAY 15, 2023

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, is allegedly discriminating against foreign-born individuals, according to a lawsuit filed in Alameda County on April 27.

Plaintiffs of the lawsuit include two individuals, Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong and Roth Chan, as well as the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and Root & Rebound. Both Pangthong and Chan were referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, after entering CDCR custody despite being U.S. citizens, according to an American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, or ACLUNC, press release.

CDCR declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“For nearly two decades, I lived with the fear and trauma caused by CDCR’s discriminatory ICE notification policy based on where I was born,” Pangthong said in the press release. “Deportation would mean losing my loved ones and a life rooted in the community and state I call home.”

The lawsuit identified three CDCR policies that allegedly violate California law: the “potential hold policy,” which allows CDCR to place holds on individuals it perceives to be born abroad; the ICE notification policy, which occurs when CDCR sends a list of CDCR-designated “foreign-born” individuals to ICE for investigation; and the “actual hold policy,” which occurs when ICE requests a custody transfer of an individual following their detention.

The potential hold and ICE notification policies violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution, which states classifications based on national origin, race and ethnicity, among others, are prohibited, the lawsuit alleges.

It further claims that receiving a potential hold leads to discriminatory treatment, such as denied opportunities to educational and rehabilitative programs and placements in higher-security facilities.

“Each year, without ICE’s direction and on its own initiative, CDCR identifies hundreds of people in its custody whom it believes were born outside of the United States,” the lawsuit states. “CDCR’s unlawful policies put U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and other persons who are not deportable at risk of mistaken or unlawful immigration enforcement.”

Pangthong spent nearly 19 years in CDCR custody after a 1997 murder conviction. CDCR referred Pangthong to federal immigration officials because he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, according to the lawsuit. ICE then placed an immigration hold on Pangthong, and he faced the threat of wrongful deportation despite being a U.S. citizen.

Chan also received a potential hold after officials perceived her to be foreign-born. This hold denied Chan access to alternative custody programs, education and rehabilitation programs and early release.

“People coming home from prison have served their time and have the right to rebuild their lives,” said Carmen Garcia, Root & Rebound executive director, in an email. “By keeping them in custody longer, CDCR harms their ties to friends, family, and employment and also prevents them from participating in programs that improve their employment prospects and programs that provide more thorough support in transitioning home.”

Garcia clarified the lawsuit is about a nonmandated CDCR policy, as the potential hold policy — which leads to ICE notification and potentially an actual hold — is not required by the federal government. She alleged the potential hold designation is based on CDCR “making a guess,” reflecting racial biases and beliefs.

The lawsuit asks for CDCR’s potential hold policy and ICE notification policy to be declared unlawful and enjoined, as well as an end to voluntary cooperation between CDCR and ICE.

“Like any other Californian, immigrants and refugees should be able to earn their release from prison and reunite with their families and communities,” Pangthong said in the ACLUNC press release.

Contact Maria Young at  or on Twitter


MAY 15, 2023