After overturned murder conviction, Mexican migrant fighting deportation

By Ana Milena Varon

Los Angeles, May 16 (EFE).- Mexican-born undocumented migrant Sandra Castañeda dreamed of returning to her home in Los Angeles after her murder conviction was overturned.

But that hope evaporated when she was detained pending deportation, a reality stemming from a United States government policy to prioritize the removal of migrants regarded as posing a threat to public safety.

Now in her early 40s, Castañeda has spent 20 years behind bars.

She was in a prison in California for 19 of those years, having been convicted of murder and attempted murder for an incident in which, while driving a group of friends to a restaurant, one of the passengers in the car who was a gang member fired gunshots at a rival gang, killing one and wounding another.

Prosecutors did not accuse her of directly perpetrating or planning those crimes, yet under California’s “felony murder rule” she faced the same consequences as the person who pulled the trigger.

Since her conviction was overturned in 2021 on the basis of a new law that eliminated parts of the felony murder rule, she has spent another year in an immigrant detention center in Georgia, far from her family in Los Angeles.

Her attorney, Anoop Prasad of the Immigrant Rights Program at the San Francisco-based Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus legal and civil rights organization, told Efe that Castañeda is a very resilient and strong person but added that the immigration detention has exacted a big toll on her.

Castañeda had hoped she would be able to return home, but Prasad explained that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has taken the position that it is not bound to recognize state laws or court decisions that overturn previous convictions.

She is not the only person to have ended up in custody of that law-enforcement agency as a result of collaboration between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and ICE.

Kao Saelee, a native of Laos who spent 22 years behind bars for an armed robbery conviction when he was a teen, also was handed over to ICE despite having helped extinguish devastating fires in California as part of a program through which inmates learned to battle blazes.

Although ICE freed Saelee on bail in 2021, it continues to detain other undocumented migrants whose sentenced were overturned.

Christine Newman-Ortiz, executive director of the organization Voces de la Frontera (Voices from the Border), said her group is focused on ending so-called 287(g) agreements that allow cooperation between ICE and local authorities.

She said those partnerships cause a lot of harm to migrants, adding that a simple traffic violation can lead an undocumented migrant to be deported.

Prasad, for his part, recalled that the CDCR does even not have a 287(g) agreement with ICE yet still repeatedly calls that federal agency to inform them that an imprisoned migrant is due to be released.

Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus has asked for the help of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and is hopeful that ICE will recognize the sentence that exonerated Castañeda and release her, even as it tries to exert further pressure by enlisting the help of the community through the #FreeSandra campaign. EFE


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