Prasad settling in after bond granted in immigration case

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday March 29, 2023
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Salesh Prasad stands outside a South of Market coffee shop during a recent interview. Photo: Cynthia Laird
Salesh Prasad stands outside a South of Market coffee shop during a recent interview. Photo: Cynthia Laird

Salesh Prasad, who was granted bond by an immigration judge late last year, has settled into transitional housing in San Francisco, where he also now has a job.

"I'm enjoying my freedom," Prasad said during a recent interview at the office of the San Francisco Public Defender, which is representing him.

Prasad had been in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Southern California for 473 days when immigration Judge Kevin Riley granted a $5,000 bond following a lengthy December 5 hearing in Van Nuys, California.

As the Bay Area Reporter has previously reported, Prasad, who told the court during that hearing that he identifies as a queer bi man, came to the U.S. from Fiji as a lawful permanent resident when he was 6 years old. But, at 22, he "made a horrible mistake in the heat of an argument and unfortunately took another person's life," as Prasad wrote in a Guest Opinion piece in the B.A.R. last year.

He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years to life, he said. Because of that conviction, he faced deportation to Fiji. He has an immigration court hearing in April to determine whether he would likely face danger if deported to the island country in the South Pacific.

Prasad was found eligible for release from prison due to his rehabilitation and remorse, as he told the judge in December. However, in August 2021, after being found eligible for parole, instead of being released to the community, he was directly transferred from prison to ICE custody at Golden State Annex. Shortly after he was detained by ICE, his mother died from COVID, and ICE denied him the opportunity to be released, even temporarily, to say goodbye or to attend her funeral.

Prasad, 51, was released from ICE custody December 6 and soon made his way to San Francisco, as he has been assigned to the parole unit here. He is currently living in transitional housing, but that will end in June. He recently started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to move into an apartment in the East Bay.

"It's less expensive there," he said, adding that he would continue working in San Francisco, where he is a social residence counselor for HomeRise, a nonprofit that works with people experiencing homelessness. "I like socializing with the residents. It's really overwhelming to help people," he said.

Prasad did just that while in custody, he explained. As he attended therapy and 12-step meetings to deal with his issues, he also found time to help other prisoners, as he wrote in the guest opinion. "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," he wrote. "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 coping skills," he said in the interview, adding he has learned what triggers him and now can work around that. He also talked about the communication skills he learned while in custody.

"I had negative communication skills," he said, attributing that to his past use of alcohol and crack cocaine. He said that he has been sober for many years.

San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Friedman, who is now representing Prasad, sat in on part of the interview. She said that Prasad's embrace of therapy during his imprisonment was a positive thing.

"A lot of stable people do talk therapy because it is helpful," she said.

Prasad does wear an ankle monitor, and checks in with his parole agent.

"It sucks," he said of the device, which he explained rubs against his skin.

But he acknowledged that it's a small price to pay for the freedom Prasad now enjoys.

"I enjoy life now and don't let anything bother me," he said.

His transitional housing is located in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, which is often abuzz with activity, both legal and otherwise. Sixty people live in his building where he has a bathroom with a shower in his room but no kitchen, he said. Meals are provided, he said.

"I know a lot of people in there and I help a lot of people out," Prasad said. "I'm cordial."

It's a different life from what he experienced while in custody.

"I hear fire trucks and ambulances all the time," he said. "People have sex everywhere — on the side of the road, in an alley."

For his court hearing, Friedman explained that it's being held for a decision on Prasad's application for protection under the Convention Against Torture, or CAT. It was previously denied but remanded from the Board of Immigration Appeals due to errors in the immigration judge's decision, so it's on for a new decision.

"The legal standard for a grant of CAT is establishing that it's more likely than not that he would be tortured if deported to Fiji," Friedman stated.

According to Outright International, Fiji decriminalized same-sex relations in 2010 and is one of few countries in the world to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in its constitution yet does not allow same-sex marriages. The global nonprofit also noted in its report on the country that "hate speech from politicians and religious leaders remains prominent."

And in 2020 the country's Rainbow Pride Foundation issued a joint statement with the International Service for Human Rights calling on Fijian leaders to take a number of measures to protect the freedoms and rights of its LGBTQ citizens, among them was reducing "the targeting and harassment of LGBTI human rights defenders."

Prasad has garnered broad support and has petitioned Governor Gavin Newsom to grant him a pardon, as the B.A.R. has previously reported. Last year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco Democratic Party both passed resolutions urging Newsom to pardon Prasad. A coalition of human rights and faith-based groups has also put out a call to action urging the governor to issue a pardon.

While in prison, Prasad earned his GED and took vocational classes in welding, electronics, and roofing. "I was able to partake in mental health services for my childhood trauma and other forms of coping skills therapy," he told the court at the December hearing.

Prasad told the B.A.R. he was grateful to his supporters and talks with them regularly. One thing that he hasn't done yet is visit the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood. "I want to go," he added.

He does plan to attend this year's Pride parade in late June.

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