California has a complicated relationship to immigration policy. In theory, this is a sanctuary state. The law blocks most collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration agents. But in the first five months of 2020, California has transferred nearly 600 people from its jails and prisons to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is one person’s story about that experience.
One year ago, on November 10, 2020, Enrique Cristobal Meneses was in the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad, a state prison. He had been incarcerated for the last seventeen years. But on that day, Enrique was called into an office, put on the phone, and told that the governor of California had commuted his sentence and that he would be released on parole.
“I was shocked. I was confused. For a minute, I thought they were playing with me,” says Enrique, over a phone call. “And I broke down. I was happy, but I was still shocked.”
It had been a long journey for Enrique to get to this point. (The following account is based on our interview and his testimony in court documents.)
Enrique came to the United States from Mexico when he was fourteen and didn’t speak any English. He remembers being assaulted by gang members and also being criminalized by law enforcement, who saw him as a threat. Eventually Enrique joined a gang for survival.
“The gang at that moment became the part that I could trust, the people that I could go to and I could feel safe [around],” he says.
When he was 20, Enrique was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 27 years to life in the California prison system.
But over time, he underwent a personal transformation, as described by multiple sources: his family, people incarcerated with him, and even prison staff.
First, Enrique left the gang, even though he was blacklisted, which meant he risked being killed by any current gang member.
Then, in 2012, he had a momentous conversation with his daughter.
“It changed my whole life around,” he says. “It got me to be who I am today. She asked me to not hurt anybody anymore. At that moment when she said those comments, I felt small. And I made a choice.”
Enrique went to self-help groups, church groups, and Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous. He became a mentor. He led Victim Offender Dialogues and became a substance use counselor. And he says he took accountability for his past actions.
“That’s why today I’ll honor all my victims,” he says. “Today I can look at myself in the mirror, and I can see myself.”
All of this led to his sentence being commuted by Governor Gavin Newsom last year. His commutation order notes that “Mr. Cristobal has dedicated himself to his rehabilitation” and recognizes “the work he has done since to transform himself.”
So Enrique was set to be released from prison. His whole family was in the U.S. waiting. Community organizations offered to provide him with a job and housing.
Jessica Yamane, immigration attorney for Dolores Street Community Services and who represents Enrique, recounts what she heard of the day he was set to be released.
“He walked into the building where his cell was,” she says. “And all of the people within that building were cheering for him, were pounding on the doors, were calling his name because everybody in that building knew that he out of all people deserved to go home. So he was just like riding this very heightened state of joy and emotion and relief.”
But instead of getting his freedom –
“ICE was there in the parking lot of CTF Soledad to pick him up,” says Jessica.
“And he told me about how they placed chains around his waist and his feet and his ankles. And how he just looked out of the van of ICE, under their charge now, and looked back at CTF Soledad, and just thought about how this was just the continuation of the horror that he’d been living.”
ICE agents transferred Enrique to Golden State Annex (GSA), a detention center in Kern County. That’s where he is today.
“My goals, my hopes and my dreams were ripped apart by ICE,” says Enrique.
Enrique is stuck in detention because he was deemed a public safety risk and denied bond, despite all his rehabilitative efforts. Meanwhile, his deportation case is still pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Enrique’s case brings up some big issues around prison to ICE transfers. There are lots of people like Enrique who have served their sentences but still face detention and the threat of deportation.
“My goals, my hopes and my dreams were ripped apart by ICE.” – Enrique Cristobal Meneses
“Since Golden State Annex opened up in September of 2020, around 80% of the population at Golden State now are people that were, like Enrique, transferred directly from prison,” says Jessica.
“And it’s these folks who’ve already served their criminal sentences or who somebody like the governor has found to not be a public safety risk that are experiencing this double punishment that our state is complicit in, in transferring these people from prison to immigration custody during a time where there’s great personal risk to their lives. All of these transfers have happened while we’ve known full well the devastating impact on all of our health that Covid-19 can have.”
In fact, Enrique is part of a separate complaint against ICE for retaliation he says he faces for speaking up against the facility’s failure to follow Covid-19 protocols and other basic standards.
“I would say it’s not just a double punishment, but is a death sentence,” says Sandy Valenciano, a community organizer based in Oakland. “Because they have the risks and the threats of dying at this facility they’re at. They run the risk of dying if they’re deported.”
The Department of Homeland Security found that Enrique has “a reasonable possibility of being tortured if deported to Mexico.” Enrique has a number of gang tattoos that make him an obvious target to both the cartels and the Mexican police.
While California’s Sanctuary State Law, SB 54, prohibits state and local law enforcement from cooperating with ICE, it makes an exception for people with certain convictions, like Enrique. But, federal law doesn’t require cooperation; it just doesn’t prohibit it.
“The way that ICE transfers work from both jails and prisons is that they are all discretionary,” says Sandy. “And so this means that ICE relies on jail staff, Sheriff’s departments and also state staff, CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to use their manpower and capacity in order to help them keep this deportation, detention machine running.”
“The direct pipeline to detention and deportation is the jail and the prison system,” she continues. “In Enrique’s case, Gavin Newsom could have ensured that Enrique would have been released and not transferred to ICE custody.”
I reached out to the Governor’s Office, which declined to respond.
“It’s not just a double punishment, but is a death sentence.” – Community organizer Sandy Valenciano
Discussion around whether to end this type of discretionary jail and prison to ICE transfer is happening at the state level. The California legislature is expected to continue consideration of the VISION Act next year.
“The VISION Act would end transfers at the local and at the state level of people who will be released,” says Sandy. “And so what we say with the VISION Act is that we believe that people should have the right to rehabilitate and should have the right to transform themselves.”
Researchers have found that ICE transfers can cause profoundly negative health impacts.
In response to my request for an interview, a spokesperson from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sent a statement that:
“CDCR complies with enacted law under SB 54, and cooperates with any local, state or federal law enforcement agency that has an active warrant or detainer for an incarcerated person.”
Multiple requests to ICE went unanswered.
For now, advocates are calling for Enrique’s immediate release from ICE custody. More information can be found at bit.ly/FreeEnrique.
Reported and produced by Lucy Kang (@ThisisLucyKang)
Photo courtesy of the #FreeEnrique team