Broken Stems: A Story of How California Prisons and ICE Tear Families Apart

March 20, 2024 Perspective


Lauren Nguyen

Lauren Nguyen

Communications Associate

Lauren Nguyen

Communications Associate

Lauren Nguyen is a Communications Associate at the Asian Law Caucus. Prior to joining ALC, she led digital strategy at Restoring Justice, a criminal defense organization, and focused on social media and advocacy at the ACLU of Texas. Lauren has also served as an PIVOT Election Fellow for Rise AAPI and volunteered as an ESL teacher in her hometown of Houston. She loves cheering for the Astros and hanging with her dog Eddie.

California is home to more immigrants than any other state. Alongside our clients and our partners, we strive for a state that welcomes people into our communities, whether we were born in Vietnam, Mexico, Haiti, or Afghanistan.

In the past several years, community-led organizing, major lawsuits, and previously-unseen public records have exposed what is behind the closed doors of our state prisons. California’s largest public agency is systematically using public resources to profile immigrants and refugees, betray California’s commitments to rehabilitation and homecoming, and rip apart countless families because of where they're from or what they look like.

This comic project, Broken Stems, is a story about how California prisons tear apart families by voluntarily colluding with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Asian Law Caucus and illustrator Laura Gao are telling this story through the voice of Vyseth, a California immigrant who grew up with his family in Long Beach, not unlike so many of our clients.

While Vyseth is fictional, his story is based on the experiences of California immigrants and refugees. It shows a small glimpse of how the threat of deportation painfully jeopardizes ties to their families and communities. For many incarcerated community members and their families, the financial and structural obstacles of the prison system strain relationships with loved ones. Being flagged for deportation by our state prison officials is yet another blow. These experiences - of families being torn apart - are why immigrant communities are leading a statewide movement for equality and belonging.

  • An illustration shows a man in an orange jumpsuit climbing the stem of a poppy flower. He raises one arm towards the top and just beyond his hand a large pair of scissors is in position to clip the flower stem. Large text in the top left reads, "Broken Stems." In smaller text in the bottom right corner, a subtitle says: "How California prisons tear families apart by colluding with ICE."
  • An illustration shows several people in orange jumpsuits are in the galley of a prison, balconies and cells visible behind them. In the foreground, a man gestures as he talks to the reader while holding a mop. Directly behind him are a few others who also turn to the reader to say things as they go about cleaning tasks. Vyseth, the man in the middle, speaks: My name is Vyseth and hundreds of people in prison are like me: We were born outside the U.S. and call California home /  Person 1, behind Vyseth: It’s been years since I’ve seen my dad in Tijuana and tasted his famous carne asada / Person 2: My husband and I dreamt of opening a bookstore back in Samoa. We just had our grand opening in Torrance last year! / Person 3: My nephew was just born back home in the British Virgin Islands. I can’t wait to see him / Vyseth continues, "But prison officials discriminate against us and push us toward deportation by ICE."
  • An illustration is split up into different panels. In the center, connecting the panels are clock hands. Each section shows people doing different things: Reading a book, talking with others while seated in a circle, sitting at a computer with hands on the keyboard and mouse as someone leans over them. Text in boxes reads, " In prison, we’re just a number to officials. Time moves slowly here, but still we  count the days until our release. Many of us try to prepare for life outside through education classes, peer counseling programs and job training."
  • An illustration shows a crowd of people standing around two people embracing in the center. In the foreground, people holding a broom handle and a bucket have their backs to the viewer. One person says to another while hugging them: Today’s my last day! I finally get to see my kids! In the foreground, someone says to Vyseth as they look on at the hugging friends, “Hey Vyseth, isn’t your day coming up soon?” Text in boxes says, “ People in prison dream of returning home to their families after serving their time. Our release should be a moment of celebration… But for some of us the nightmare continues.”
  • An illustration shows a hand holding a printed picture that has some creases and folds around the edges. The photo shows a family with several people posing for a photo with what looks like a country landscape behind them. Arrows and small captions point to a few people in the photo: "Dad, who I ended up looking a lot alike. My big sis. She's a nurse at UCLA now. Me, Mama's fave." Text on top and bottom of the illustration reads, "I was born in a Thai refugee camp but I only have memories of growing up in Long Beach, CA. On Saturday mornings, my siblings and I learned English by watching He-Man. Sometimes we’d go to the arcade.   My family survived the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and when we got to the U.S., we thought the worst was over. We ended up in a heavily policed neighborhood and tried to move past a violent war that had changed our lives forever."
  • An illustration shows people eating in a row at a table with trays of food in front of them. One person rests their hand on their head and says, "Oye, la comida hoy...canned green beans? Not again!" as Vyseth chews and listens. To the right, a person in uniform points at the person speaking and says, "Hey you, you understand English? An officer wants to talk to you." Text in a box reads, "Not long after I arrived at prison, officials told me I had something they called a ‘potential hold.” Because I wasn’t born in the U.S., they decided to send my information to ICE agents for investigation.   This happened to one of my friends, too, even though he was born here. To help ICE, prison officials racially profile us simply because we don’t look or sound 'American.'"
  • An illustration shows Vyseth in the foreground with his back to the reader. He holds the handle of a broom as he looks across a chainlink fence with concertina wire on top to people. On the other side are people dressed in firefighting uniforms moving towards a Cal Fire truck. Vyseth calls out to them, "Stay safe, guys!" One of the people dressed in firefighter clothes waves and says, "Worry about yourself, Vyseth!" Text in a box reads, "This immigration hold bars me from programs where I could protect people from wildfires or serve my sentence in the community. Instead, I must remain inside this cruel and degrading place."
  • An illustration shows Vyseth in the background. He stands behind a wall of bars, his arms wrapped around them as looks at the photo of his family on the ground among poppy flowers. The bars cast a shadow on the photo and dirt. The space that a younger Vyseth occupied in the photo now has been torn away.  Text in a box reads, " ICE won’t confirm what they will do until I’m almost done serving my sentence. Surviving prison is one thing, but the worst part is not knowing if I will ever return to my family.  Most nights I cannot sleep. Depressed, I wonder if the groups and classes I join are pointless if the immigration hold means I’ll never be able to come home."
  • An illustration shows Vyseth looking downward as he mops inside a prison building. He says, "My family fled a country at war, survived, and managed to make a home here. It’s difficult to think that we could be torn apart for a lifetime because California prisons work with ICE to actively target people like me who were born outside the U.S. We worked hard to show we can rejoin our communities - but none of that matters to an anti-immigrant prison system."
  • An illustration shows a crowd of people, some of them holding signs and raising their hands and fists in the air. The signs say, "Stop ICE transfers" and "Justice for those incarcerated." In the center, the foreground shows a family that includes an elder and child hugging a man as they smile and cry. Text in a box continues Vyseth's thoughts and reads, "Still, I’m hopeful that my release day will come, that I will own my time and spend it with my loved ones. Everyone, regardless of where we were born, deserves that opportunity.  Join me and thousands of others in this fight against discrimination and to keep our fellow Californians home."

If you would like to use the comic for educational or outreach efforts, please reach out to [email protected].

Art by Laura Gao
Color by Monica Nguyen-Vo

Stories and reflections from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Californians who are leading campaigns, lawsuits, and local and state advocacy to reunite families and create the stronger communities that are possible when people come home.