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.