Guest Opinion: Let's not forget about LGBTQ immigrants in ICE detention

  • by Salesh Prasad
  • Wednesday July 13, 2022
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Salesh Prasad. Photo: Courtesy Sal Prasad
Salesh Prasad. Photo: Courtesy Sal Prasad

There's a suffocating bleakness to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detention. We are locked inside 20 hours a day. It's a loud and open space, and there's no privacy where we sleep or in the bathrooms.

I'm currently facing deportation to Fiji — a country I left 44 years ago and can barely remember. I'm afraid that I won't survive the homophobia there. I'm sharing my story with the public in hopes it will inspire change — not just for me, but for other detained people, and so other people who won't suffer the same injustices as I have suffered.

My story starts with my family, which is Indo-Fijian. My parents left Fiji because they wanted a better life for their children. I arrived in Modesto, California as a lawful permanent resident at just 6 years old.

As a child in the United States, I survived both sexual abuse and domestic violence. I felt like I was crying out for help but no one was listening. I felt numb, like my world was drained of any vibrancy and color. In my desperation to feel safe, I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol and joined a gang that I hoped would protect me from more abuse. At 22, I made a horrible mistake in the heat of an argument and unfortunately took another person's life.

I spent the next 27 years of my life in prison grappling with incredible remorse. I knew I could never undo the pain that I caused, but I wanted to be a better person. In those nearly three decades, I focused on understanding and healing from my trauma. I found treatment for my alcohol and drug addiction in prison through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I started therapy, where I learned to name and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and my anxiety attacks. I started the work of helping rather than hurting others, which is my goal in life.

I have stood up for my fellow detainees by speaking out about work conditions and safety with Cal-OSHA, the state's occupational health and safety agency. I have fought to protect the rights of people detained by ICE during the COVID-19 pandemic, by advocating for vaccinations for people who are detained by ICE and fighting for an end to transfers of people who served their time in California prisons, to ICE detention. I have also advocated for legislation at both the federal and state level by speaking in support of the VISION Act, a bill in the California Legislature that would protect community members who have already been deemed eligible for release from being transferred by local jails and our state prison system to immigration detention. I have also advocated for the California Mandela Act on Solitary Confinement, and the New Way Forward Act, a federal bill that would reform the process for enforcing the immigration laws of the United States.

I proved to the state Parole Board in 2021 that I am a rehabilitated person and that I was ready to be released to the community and make amends to that community. The board saw my transformation and granted me parole. Governor Gavin Newsom also signed off on my release. But the day that I was supposed to leave prison, I was transferred immediately to ICE detention. I didn't get a day of freedom and I didn't get to see my family. Just a month later, my mother passed away from COVID-19. ICE denied me release to say goodbye or to attend her funeral.

After decades of painful and slow growth, I came out as queer in ICE detention. It took me years to untangle my identity from the abuse, and even longer to feel safe enough to share it with the world. But I found the strength to come out through the new friends and allies I have met in the LGBTQ community. I show my care for others by creating custom greeting cards and sharing my love of art with them. There's so much pain in detention; my art is my sanctuary.

If I am deported to Fiji, I will never get the chance to be with my family again. My siblings, cousins, and nieces and nephews all live in California. I will be thousands of miles away from the organizations that supported my coming out, like the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, Rainbow Beginnings, and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.

Worst of all, returning to Fiji would mean hiding who I am once again, or facing discrimination and hate crimes. Deportation would force me into a conservative society where queerness is not accepted and LGBTQ+ people are persecuted and harmed, and to a country where the police have been known to torture civilians. Here in the Bay Area, I have the support of family and friends. My life in California represents so much potential for me to succeed as a person, where I am supported and I can support others and give back to my community.

I am asking you to sign my petition asking Newsom to pardon me so that I can reunite with my family here in California and be free to openly be who I am — a queer man and a changed person.

Salesh Prasad is an LGBTQ immigrant currently facing deportation to Fiji. His case was recently profiled in the Guardian.

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