Vithea Yung with his family and supporters. (Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus)

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the Archstone Foundation.

By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER, Rafu Contributor

The Oakland-based Asian Prisoner Support Committee supports incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people of Asian/Pacific Islander descent and their families. The organization leads educational programs in prisons, helping people get back on their feet after release from prison, and organizes anti-deportation campaigns. 

Deportation poses a threat for some undocumented incarcerated Asian/Pacific Islanders, who can be picked up by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) upon release from prison and deported to countries of birth — often for the first time since they were young, and where they may have no family or community. 

Over the past months, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee has been advocating the safe release of Vithea Yung, a Cambodian refugee from Long Beach, from California’s prison system. Despite completing his prison sentence of more than 25 years and earning parole, Yung faced immediate transfer to ICE and possible deportation because he was born outside of the U.S.

In late March, the APSC, the ICE Out of California Coalition, and fellow community members held a rally on the steps of the L.A. Board of Supervisors building, calling for Yung’s release and the passage of the VISION Act — a State Senate bill that would block Immigration officials from detaining people after release from prison or jail, effectively furthering their incarceration.

While L.A. County officials have already passed a resolution to stop ICE transfers (when immigration  officials detain people who have recently been released from prison), advocates are urging Southern California Senate members to further strengthen protections for refugees and immigrants by passing the VISION Act, APSC reported.

“Thousands of immigrants and refugees are at risk of being torn from their loved ones and left to endure inhumane treatment in ICE facilities,” said the Asian Prisoner Support Committee in a statement. “The VISION Act must be passed this year to ensure our communities come home safely.” 

On April 14, after months of putting pressure on public officials, ICE announced it would not deport Yung to Cambodia after his release from state prison. It was a rare case. Between Jan. 1, 2020 and Nov. 30, 2021, the California prison system transferred 2,600 community members to ICE detention centers — despite these people having earned release from custody, public records show. 

“We’re relieved it was dropped and he’s not going to be transferred to ICE and he’ll receive the care he needs after leaving prison,” said Anoop Prasad, Yung’s lawyer with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, in a press release. “But…it shouldn’t require community outrage and rallies to get ICE to step in and do the basic, humane thing.” 

“We have been calling for Vithea to be returned to his family and community in Los Angeles, and we are grateful those calls have finally been answered,” said Sarah Lee, a community advocate at Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, according to a press release. “Vithea’s experience with the prison system and ICE reflects the inhumanity and tragedy of California’s voluntary ICE transfer policy — and the strength and love of advocates and community. We need Los Angeles senators, like Sen. (Bob) Hertzberg, to support the VISION Act because community members in his district, including Vithea, who earn release risk being transferred to ICE.”

Like prisons and jails, ICE facilities pose conditions that risk incarcerees’ health and make preventing the spread of COVID-19 difficult. Prior to the pandemic, ACLU’s Detention Watch Network documented the “egregious conditions that typify immigration detention, including lack of access to basic hygienic products, inadequate food, abuse, and medical neglect,” the Prison Policy Initiative reports. 

Despite the fact that public health officials have long warned infectious disease spreads rapidly through the system, when COVID-19 arrived, ICE facilities around the country became sites of some of the worst outbreaks.  “The spread of COVID-19 due to ICE’s negligence was dramatic,” wrote Detention Watch Network in a 2020 report. A lack of use of personal protective equipment by ICE officials, refusal to implement testing, and consistent transfer of people between facilities exacerbated the virus’ spread.

In April 2021, The New York Times reported infection rates at U.S. immigration detention centers were 20 times higher than the general population, and five times higher than in prisons. The data came from COVID Behind Bars, a project led by UCLA Law.

The U.S. operates the largest immigration detention system in the world, according to a 2021 report by the Global Detention Project. On any given day, ICE can hold more than 50,000 people in its 200 facilities across the country. 

Detention of people in ICE facilities also poses health risks not only to those inside, but to surrounding communities as well. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “between May and August 2020 alone, ICE detention facilities were responsible for over 245,000 COVID-19 cases throughout the country. These cases were concentrated in multi-county economic areas where ICE facilities are located.” 

ICE has been known to release COVID-positive people from custody without informing local communities of their positive status; as well as refuse to provide COVID tests on the grounds that quarantining people would be too difficult, Detention Watch Network reports. ICE has also been accountable for spreading COVID-19 internationally by refusing to test people before deporting them.

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ICE deports elders on the basis that they pose a public safety risk, said Hien Nguyen, program coordinator at the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. “A couple of our folks who are in their sixties were deported to Hong Kong last year for that reason.” After being released from prison to live in California, these men were detained by ICE and deported to a place they hadn’t lived in years.

When people are deported to countries of birth, they often lose support networks of family and community in the U.S. “Family in Asian communities are important functions for care, especially for elders,” Nguyen said. The range of jobs offered to elders also differs from those available to younger people, making it difficult to find stability after release and possible deportation. 

“It’s one thing for a young person to be deported to a country they don’t call home, but it’s also another set of challenges for someone older,” said Nguyen. “How do you navigate health care? Who takes care of you? Often we don’t think about these people.”

One incarcerated Asian elder, Elaine Wong, is 69 years old. The state of California has held her in the California Correctional Women’s Facility, a prison in the town of Chowchilla in California’s Central Valley, for 42 years. CCWF is the largest women’s prison in the U.S., incarcerating 2,278 people as of December 2021, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It is the only prison in California with a Death Row for women. 

Wong is in touch with her family of children and grandchildren, who have long been advocating for her release. As an older person, Wong’s increased vulnerability to COVID-19 has made her incarceration even more dangerous. 

“Every year, her family works in earnest to support her commutation and release,” writes a petition for Wong created by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners in 2020. The petition has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures. “The danger that COVID-19 presents for Elaine has introduced a new sense of urgency to her family’s fight for her freedom.” 

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