A 50-year-old California man who was born in Fiji but has lived in the US since he was six years old is facing deportation to a country where he has no family and is at risk of violence and abuse as a queer person.
Salesh “Sal” Prasad was detained by federal authorities after he was granted parole from state prison, where he had been incarcerated for years. His case of him has sparked outrage among human rights activists and local lawmakers who say it highlights the cruelty and expansive reach of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) under a Democratic president who has promised a more humane approach and in a state that claims to be a sanctuary for immigrants.
“If I’m deported, I won’t survive. I won’t make it in Fiji. There’s no protection there for me. There’s no support,” he said during a recent call from Ice’s Golden State annex in California’s Central Valley. “I’d be forced to be somebody I’m not. I don’t want to hide again. I should be able to love who I want to love.”
Prasad came to the US in 1978 as a lawful permanent resident and grew up in Modesto, 90 miles east of San Francisco.
He suffered severe physical and sexual abuse as a young child, including a beating that led to hearing loss, according to court records. He struggled with drug use as a teenager and post-traumatic stress disorder and ended up getting involved with gangs for protection, his lawyer wrote about it. At 22, he took someone’s life during an altercation and was convicted of second-degree murder, handed a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
Last year, after 27 years behind bars, authorities granted Prasad parole, recognizing his rehabilitative work, which included leading support groups, and determining he was not a public safety risk. “I had worked so hard, and I was so proud to tell my mom that I was finally coming home,” he recalled.
But on August 19, 2021, the day of his release, California prison guards handed him over to immigration officers, who shackled him and took him away. Although he came to the US as a child and his family he is in California, under the Biden administration’s guidelines, Ice has argued he is a priority for deportation due to the decades-old criminal conviction. California law enforcement officials facilitated his arrest.
On the drive to the Ice facility, he passed by the exit where his mother lives and started weeping. “She is maybe 100 yards away. That’s how close I was to her. I just wanted to see my mom and hold her.”
Prasad’s requests to fight his case outside of detention were denied and he has been held in the custody of Ice since. In September, his mother contracted Covid-19 and died; Ice declined to temporarily release him to say his goodbyes to her in her final days and refused to let him go to her funeral. “Ella She was my life, and it was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to live through,” Prasad said.
Prasad’s lawyer has argued he should not be detained because state authorities deemed him safe for release, but Ice has argued his conviction makes him removable. “For people like Sal, the Biden priorities are not resulting in more compassionate policies,” said Maddie Boyd, Prasad’s attorney. “Ice is holding people as public safety risks even after they have been determined not to be public safety risks.”
His attorneys also argued he should be shielded from removal under the Convention Against Torture, citing evidence of police violence and attacks on LGBTQ+ people in Fiji; Prasad recently learned that a distant relative in Fiji kicked his son out of the home for being gay.
Prasad faces further risks due to his gang tattoos from his youth, which could make him a target of police, his lawyer says, and because he is Indo-Fijian, an ethnic minority that has historically faced discrimination.
US government lawyers have rejected those pleas, which means he has few recourses beyond continued appeals. The case could drag on for years, leaving him stuck in an Ice jail where he said he has faced inadequate care and recently developed injuries to his wrist from overly tight handcuffs while he was being transferred to a doctor.
“The system is designed to push people to give up on their immigration case and instead be deported and permanently separated from their family,” said Angela Chan, chief of policy at the San Francisco public defender’s office.
Prasad’s best shot at release is a pardon from the California governor, Gavin Newsom, which would make him ineligible for deportation, and his lawyer is preparing a clemency application.
“Give me a fighting chance,” Prasad said. “The parole board said, ‘We believe in the changed person that you are,’ and that I’m not a threat. So why am I still in detention?
“I may never see my family again,” he added.
Newsom has issued a handful of individual pardons to prevent deportation in recent years, but has repeatedly ignored calls to stop the state prison system from transferring people to Ice at the end of their sentences, a form of “double punishment” that advocates say violates the spirit of the state’s sanctuary laws. From 2020 through November 2021, an estimated 2,600 people were transferred from California prisons to Ice, according to the Asian Law Caucus.
An Ice spokesperson declined to comment. A spokesperson for the governor declined to comment on Prasad’s case, but said, “The governor regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system and all applications receive a thorough and careful review.”
A spokesperson for Geo Group, the corporation that runs the Ice jail, declined to comment on Prasad, but said the facility “provides around-the-clock access to medical care”.
“He has paid his dues. When is it enough? said Amitesh Diyal, Prasad’s nephew, who said Prasad had acted like a father to him and a grandfather to his young children from him, even from behind bars. “I just want my uncle to be able to spend time with my kids.”
If released, Prasad said he hopes to mentor youth in California who have endured similar traumas as him and continue his visual art practice he developed behind bars. He also dreams of opening a food truck that sells grilled cheese and tostadas. For now, he said, “I feel like I’m in purgatory here. I can’t go back. I can’t go forward. I’m just stuck.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism