Sandra Castaneda spent 19 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit.
But when the California courts overturned her conviction in July 2021, the 40-year-old Los Angeles woman did not walk free. Instead, she was picked up by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents and taken to a federal detention center where she is now facing deportation to Mexico, a country she left at age nine.
Castaneda has been in Ice detention for nine months, trapped in a Kafkaesque legal nightmare in which lawyers for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Ice, argue she should be deported due to the original murder charge even though the California courts and an immigration judge have said that her conviction was invalid.
“I’m stuck here. There’s nothing to do all day and I get overwhelmed,” Castaneda said in a recent call from inside a detention center in the state of Georgia. “It’s like nothing applies to [Ice]. They can do whatever they want. It makes me angry … I’m just wasting time here.”
Sandra Castaneda spent 19 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit. Photograph: Castaneda family
Immigrants’ rights advocates say her case is extraordinarily unjust – but far from unique.
The US has long deported immigrants based on their criminal records, routinely detaining people convicted of a wide range of offenses, leading people like Castaneda, who have legal status, to be threatened with removal.
But as the US justice system reckons with its past and various states have passed reform laws meant to right the wrongs of mass incarceration and unjust convictions, the immigration system has not caught up.
That means that across the US tens of thousands of people over the years have faced deportation even after courts have overturned their convictions, granted expungements and erased the offenses from their criminal records, legal experts estimate. And in recent years, the US government has actively thwarted new state reforms meant to fix this problem and stop deportations based on flawed convictions.
“There’s discrimination baked into the system at every level,” said Andrew Wachtenheim, supervising attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project (IDP), an advocacy group that has challenged US deportation policies. “You have very racist state criminal laws that have been doing damage to communities of color for decades … and now you finally have some localities facing those injustices and enacting desperately needed legislation to alleviate the consequences, but for non-citizens, the reforms aren’t happening. It’s a second level of injustice.”
‘I thought I’d die in prison’
Castaneda, who came to the US with a green card in 1991, grew up in South Central LA, a neighborhood that struggled with gang violence. She had a difficult childhood, with her mother leaving her to live with relatives at a young age, but she stayed out of trouble until 10 May 2002.
Castaneda, then 20, was driving a group of friends to a restaurant that evening when one of them, who was affiliated with a local gang, fired without warning at a rival gang, injuring one person and killing another, her attorneys wrote in a recent filing. The passengers and shooter in the car all fled on foot, but Castaneda stopped a few blocks away, and was apprehended by police.
Prosecutors did not allege that she took part in the killing or had any role in planning it, but she was convicted of murder and attempted murder under the state’s “felony murder rule”, which at the time dictated that anyone involved in a felony when a death occurs can face the same consequences as the person who committed the act.
At age 21, Castaneda, who had no criminal record, was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years. The shooter was never charged.
“I had mentally prepared myself to die in prison, as a lifer … so I tried to do good for myself and for others,” said Castaneda, who got multiple degrees while incarcerated and served as a mentor, peer educator and advocate for terminally ill people behind bars.
On 27 July last year, the day Sandra Castaneda was scheduled to come home, California prison guards handed her over to Ice. Photograph: Castaneda family
In recent years, officials across the California criminal justice system recognized the injustice of Castaneda’s conviction and her achievements: in 2019, the head of the California department of corrections recommended her sentence be reduced; in 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom commuted her sentence altogether, giving her an opportunity at early parole; and in 2021, a judge ruled that her conviction be entirely dismissed and she be immediately released, based on a new California law that dismantled parts of the felony murder rule due to concerns about unjust murder sentences for people not responsible for the deaths.
On 27 July last year, the day she was scheduled to come home, California prison guards handed her over to Ice. Colby Lenz, an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, who has known Castaneda for years, was waiting outside to pick her up and watched as an Ice van drove her away. “It was totally devastating, especially knowing that she was about to face a really long struggle and more horrible conditions in detention.”
Ice officers initially told Castaneda that she would be released home to her family, with an ankle monitor, because Ice had no available bed in California: “I was so happy, I was finally going to go home to my family.”
But later that day, the Ice officer said, “‘I found you a spot – you’re going to Atlanta,’” she recalled. “I just started crying. I couldn’t believe they would send me to the other side of the country. All my support is in California. I don’t have nobody in Georgia.”
‘Second level of injustice’
There’s no good data on deportations after convictions were invalidated, but immigration lawyers say it’s been a common occurrence for decades and continues to emerge when states enact new reforms.
The challenges stem from a US Department of Justice ruling in the late 1990s and early 2000s, dictating that if a non-citizen’s conviction was dismissed due to a “procedural or substantive defect in the underlying criminal proceedings” (such as a straightforward wrongful conviction uncovered by DNA), then the individual would no longer be deportable. But if someone’s conviction was erased due to “rehabilitation” or certain other reforms, the standards hold they should still be deported.
That decision applies to many non-citizens across the country who get their records expunged every year, including people who have successfully completed probation and other programs, and people who got old marijuana cases and related charges tossed out due to reform measures meant to address the “war on drugs”. Those expungements wipe an individual’s record clean, removing barriers to housing and employment, but the DoJ considers them irrelevant for most immigration purposes.
“As far as the state is concerned, these convictions are invalid and don’t exist, but folks are still getting detained and deported,” said Anoop Prasad, an Asian Law Caucus (ALC) staff attorney representing Castaneda.
Last year, for example, a New Jersey human trafficking survivor still faced deportation even after her convictions were dropped once she proved in state court that she was victimized.
California, New York and other states have passed laws in recent years to help people dismiss convictions and ensure they are protected from deportation, but the federal government has fought to circumvent them.
Attorney Matt Boles with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative heads to immigration court at the Stewart detention center, November 2019. Photograph: David Goldman/AP
“Every criminal legal reform that we’ve passed, I’ve seen federal immigration attorneys attempt to argue that those reforms don’t pass muster in immigration court. It’s infuriating,” said Rose Cahn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC).
For months, this has been the case for Castaneda. In October 2021, US lawyers argued that her “conviction remains a conviction for immigration purposes”. An immigration judge sided with Castaneda in November and said he did not believe she was deportable, though last week called for another hearing on the matter. And although Castaneda’s lawyers have obtained further documentation from a California judge making clear she no longer had a deportable offense, DHS is still fighting to remove her – and refusing to release her on bond as she fights her case.
Pressure on Biden
Immigrant advocates are pressuring the Biden administration and state officials to do more to stop deportations of people with dismissed convictions and old criminal records.
A coalition of advocates has urged Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, to restore a rule undone by the Trump administration that enabled some immigrants to avoid deportation if their criminal sentences were retroactively lowered. Some offenses are only deportable if the sentence is a certain length.
Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, reversed this longstanding precedent in 2019.
So far, the Biden administration has declined to change the rule or enact policies directing immigration officials to broadly recognize conviction dismissals.
Spokespeople for the DoJ and White House declined to comment, and representatives of Ice and the DHS did not respond to inquiries about Castaneda’s case and the related deportation policies.
Activists in California have also fought to stop the state from transferring people from prisons to Ice, arguing that states have the discretion to end the practice and that people who served their time should not face further punishment. So far, the governor has refused; Castaneda was one of 2,600 people handed over to Ice from California prisons from January 2020 through November 2021, according to data obtained by ALC. (The governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry.)
Castaneda, thousands of miles from her family, doesn’t know what will happen if she loses her case: “I don’t see myself in Mexico. It’s hard for me to face the fact that I might have to go, because I don’t know a life there.”
After all of the acknowledgments of her accomplishments behind bars, Ice’s refusal to even release her on bond has weighed on her: “They say I’m a ‘safety risk for the public’, and it frustrates me, because you’re focusing on my first charges. They’re not seeing the good things I’ve done. What else do you want?” Once released, she has dozens of family members and friends ready to support her in LA and a non-profit advocacy job lined up.
Her message to the Biden administration? “Give us a second chance, allow us to do it right, to prove ourselves. The laws are changing, but it’s only on paper. They don’t honor that. They don’t honor the fact that you have family here. Check our records and you can see we tried to change our lives. Don’t just send us back to what we don’t know.”