California Turned Over an Incarcerated Firefighter to ICE. Lawmakers Urge Newsom to End the Practice

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Bounchan Keola (center) with his parents, Phonethip and Chanh Keola (left) and sister Thongsouk (right) during a prison visit this year. (Courtesy Anoop Prasad)

Among the roughly 1,800 inmate firefighters who battled record-setting blazes in California this year was Bounchan Keola, a 39-year-old immigrant serving a 28-year prison sentence for a gang-related shooting when he was a teenager.

Keola, who grew up in the East Bay city of Richmond after fleeing Laos with his parents when he was just 2 years old, battled six major wildfires in California this season. During an assignment on the Zogg Fire this fall in Shasta County, he suffered a traumatic neck injury after being hit by a falling tree and had to be airlifted out and hospitalized.

But despite the physical pain he still suffers and the dangerous work firefighting represents, Keola still wants to do it.

After his first assignment, when he was stunned to see people from the community lining up to thank him and other inmates as they returned to their bus, Keola said the work made him feel a bit like a superhero.

"For the first time in my life, I felt good about myself," he said. "I told myself this is what I want to do with my life."

When he was 16, Keola was involved in a gang-related shooting and was convicted for second-degree attempted murder.

He served most of his sentence and was set to be released from state prison last month. Instead, federal agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested him and are still holding him at a detention center in Kern County.

Keola has a green card, but he can be deported because of his criminal conviction. An immigration judge ordered him deported on Oct. 29.

"I’m just asking for a second chance to live this American life and to be a firefighter," Keola told reporters over the phone from the ICE detention center on Thursday.

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California law restricts local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal immigration authorities, but it doesn't apply to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which runs the state prison system.

CDCR officials routinely cooperate with federal immigration authorities, advocates say, transferring released inmates to their custody so they can begin deportation proceedings. This year alone, the state has transferred an estimated 1,265 inmates to ICE, according to Sarah Lee, community advocate for the Asian Law Caucus.

At a state Senate hearing Thursday, a CDCR official said the agency must honor ICE requests to hold inmates. But Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, disagreed, saying CDCR has no legal obligation to ICE.

"These are people who pay their debt to society, finish their time and helped us to fight these devastating wildfires," Wiener said of incarcerated immigrant firefighters like Keola. "And what is their reward? We're going to turn them over to ICE and get them deported. It's outrageous. It’s inhumane, and it has to stop.

"We should be integrating them back into our community, and not facilitating the Trump deportation machine."

Brandon Smith, executive director of The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, a nonprofit that helps California's incarcerated firefighters obtain gainful employment once released, said immigrant inmate firefighters deserve jobs, not deportation.

"These people deserve the opportunity to hop into this [employment] space," Smith said. "Especially after they risked their lives to save you, me, all of our families, the forest that we love."

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For months, dozens of state lawmakers have urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop handing over inmates to ICE, especially during the pandemic as detention centers struggle with deadly COVID-19 outbreaks.

But, they say, they haven’t gotten a response yet.

Keola's lawyer, Anoop Prasad, said Keola's family fought alongside U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. They fled the country when the war ended to avoid persecution and settled in California in 1988, where they became lawful permanent residents.

Before Keola can be deported, Laos has to agree to take him. Prasad said Keola doesn't have a birth certificate or other documents showing he was born in Laos, and he doesn't have any family members who live in the country. Laos officials plan to interview him next month.

"I'm trying to be patient, just hoping that I'll get out of here soon and not face deportation and go back to a country I know nothing of and where my family and I fled for a better life," Keola said.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press' Adam Beam.