An Inmate Firefighter Might Be Deported After California Handed Him Over to ICE

Bounchan Keola was injured while fighting the deadly Zogg Fire. California rewarded him with a possible deportation.


Time is ticking for a California inmate facing deportation despite his service battling the state's wildfires this year.

Last week, The Guardian reported Bounchan Keola's story, which began with him fleeing Laos—a country he does not remember—with his family at a young age. Currently 39 and a legal resident of the U.S., Keola was sent to prison during his teens after being convicted of second-degree attempted murder in a gang-related shooting. Though Keola's actions as a teenager were devastating, he's acknowledged the pain he caused and has spent his time behind bars trying to reform.

Keola found his chance to give back to his community this year when California was ravaged by deadly fires: He was trained to be an inmate firefighter. But while fighting the Zogg Fire in early October, Keola was suddenly injured by a falling tree. He suffered a traumatic neck injury, which required him to be airlifted to a hospital.

With only a few weeks left on his sentence, Keola believed that he'd remain in the hospital until his release date. Instead, he was given a neck brace, returned to prison, and placed in isolation.

Then the state turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Earlier this year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that would allow inmates who served as firefighters a chance to become professional firefighters after completing their sentences. This was done after years of criticism about the state's licensing law, which barred former offenders from continuing in the field after their release.

While the governor's actions once gave Keola hope, Newsom is now being criticized by Keola's supporters for continuing the state's policy of transferring prisoners like Keola to ICE custody following the completion of their sentences. And despite repeated requests to end the practice during the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsom has wordlessly carried on.

Anoop Prasad, Keola's representation and senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), is among the voices condemning the state's continued partnership with ICE. On Twitter, Prasad declared that Newsom either needed to either discontinue the ICE transfers "or stop pretending to be a champion for immigrant and refugee communities."

Prasad and ALC have also used social media to highlight Kao Saelee, another former inmate who was reported to ICE upon completion of his sentence. And like Keola, Saelee fought wildfires while incarcerated.

While Newsom's response, or lack thereof, has greatly disappointed Keola's supporters, he's proven in the past that former inmates like Keola can be spared from such a fate. In 2019, ALC actually commended Newsom for pardoning Kang Hen and Hay Hov, two Cambodian refugees who faced the threat of deportation after serving time for past crimes.

As Keola's fate hangs in the balance, he faces another obstacle. Keola's family is of Khmu descent and fled to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. The Laotian government, however, does not recognize the citizenship of the ethnic minority. It is unclear whether Laos would accept him at all and what would happen to Keola if ICE continues with deportation regardless of the other government. 

NEXT: Denver Mayor Michael Hancock Urged People Not To Travel for Thanksgiving Shortly Before Boarding His Flight

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  2. At 16 he and some of his buddies fired out of their car and some guy died. Whether one of the fatal bullets was his I don’t know. He pled to second-degree *attempted* murder.

    Now, if he’s reformed since his teenage years – as the article indicates – the governor can pardon him.

    Why put in the mandatory Trump-bashing? The federal government doesn’t control whom state governors pardon…or don’t pardon.

    1. a State pardon often does not affect his deportability for the crime.

      (retired ICE agent, btw …. Border Patrol, Deportation Officer, Special agent – 26 yrs)

      1. Well, then, thank you for the update… but Congress (or the courts) need to get to work recognizing the prerogatives of the states.

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  3. Though Keola’s actions as a teenager were devastating, he’s acknowledged the pain he caused and has spent his time behind bars trying to reform.


    1. The Laotian government, however, does not recognize the citizenship of the ethnic minority.

      Zuri’s challenging Shackford for Reason’s Dumbest.

  4. murder? let’s have more facts. if he was front and center and legit convicted then it’s VERY different than the typical railroading by cops and DA’s LIKE KAMALA HARRIS. we do not have enough backstory here gents. we also learn here that the laotians are clearly not woke enough to take him back as they do not recognize the citizenship of the ethnic minority.

  5. and please lets not pretend he was “giving back to his community”. he’s been in lock-up for 20 years… was looking for any chance to get out for a little change of scenery. that it was fighting fires is simply todays version of a chain gang. let’s start right here to the stopping of treating firemen like they were fucking heroes. in my town they go to an average of 1 fire every two years. big fucking deal. this guy was certainly in harms way so props for that but if he did ice a guy (see my comment above) then so be it if he gets carted off

    1. And why are we giving violent felons any priority at all for firefighter jobs? There is typically a wait list for those positions. So now we’re going to give them to felons who should be facing deportation?

      Reason once again picks the wrong hill to die on.

  6. Newsom is now being criticized by Keola’s supporters for continuing the state’s policy of transferring prisoners like Keola to ICE custody following the completion of their sentences. And despite repeated requests to end the practice during the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsom has wordlessly carried on.

    Wait, what? California has a policy of transferring prisoners to ICE custody and Newsom supports it? When you say “prisoners like Keola” do you mean “non-Hispanic”?

    1. That part confused me as well. Newsom made a huge deal in 2017 about refusing to comply with the federal law requiring the state to notify ICE when they have an illegal immigrant in custody.

      It’s hard to know if that “resistance” changed when the state started asking the Feds for money due to the fires, or if the policy of non-cooperation only applies to immigrants from demographic categories that the Dems are agressively pandering to.

      1. Well, if the article can be trusted on that point, Keola was a legal immigrant.

      2. Keep up with progressive racial ethics! Asians are no longer a “minority”.

        1. Yes, we can always trust progtards to provide equal protection under the law.

        2. no, they are still a minority, they just count as “white”

  7. Newsome flaunts rules lives the high life and kicks brown people.

    Good choice Californians.

  8. He is a convicted felon and not worthy of us citizenship. Criminal acts have consequences like loss of citizenship I wish him all the best in his country of origin and would advise him to not break the law there as their prisons are not the country clubs of the American prisons

  9. We shouldn’t be fighting wildfires.

    1. Assaulting wildfires is racist against wildfires. And if those wildfires originate south of the border, Reason supports this wildfires crossing our borders at will.

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  12. Way to persecute a brave hero who was just shooting the people Americans are too lazy to shoot, Gavin!

  13. Attempted murder? This is the case you choose to champion?

    Maybe Laos wouldn’t give citizenship, but we likely wouldn’t either.

    1. I think Shikha should do a series of articles championing the struggle of this brave hero.

  14. “Bounchan Keola’s story, which began with him fleeing Laos”

    Oh. Wrong ethnicity for Cali.

    1. If he swears to vote Democrat for the rest of his life and after death, Calif. will welcome him with open arms. Even if he joins Antifa/BLM and sets fires on purpose, they’ll welcome him.

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  16. Bad article. What was his crime? Is he a citizen, deportation not withstanding? Is he a legal resident? Back ground would be helpful.

  17. “don’t deport people because covid” is a really, really stupid argument.

  18. You can drop the firefighter label. Actual firefighters go through an extensive hiring process and training for many months. Inmates who volunteer for fire camp do basic safety training. Their roles are limited and they are getting time off their sentences. You are comparing apples to dinosaurs… not even close.

  19. “Currently 39 and a legal resident of the U.S., Keola was sent to prison during his teens after being convicted of second-degree attempted murder in a gang-related shooting.”

    OK, Reason. Maybe take out a few of the irrelevant Trump bashing paragraphs and explain how and when he became a legal resident.
    Reconcile the ‘legal resident’ with ‘facing deportation’.
    You can remember, do journalism.

    1. One may be a legal resident of the United States without being a U.S. citizen, and as such one would be subject to a risk of deportation that a citizen would not.

      For instance, he might be a family member of a citizen or a permanent legal resident.

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