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Newsom Pardons Formerly Incarcerated Firefighters

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Bounchan Keola (left) and Kao Ta Saelee (right) were pardoned by Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 28, 2021, along with more than a dozen other people. (Image courtesy of Asian Law Caucus)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday pardoned more than a dozen people, including two formerly incarcerated firefighters who faced deportation.

The pardon will make those two men, who were in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, safe from potential deportation, according to Anoop Prasad, senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, which represented them.

Newsom announced pardons for 14 people, commuted sentences for 13 others and granted medical reprieves for eight state prisoners, most of them in their 60s or 70s, who are considered to be at high medical risk.

Those pardoned included Kao Ta Saelee and Bounchan Keola, who were born in Laos but came to the U.S. as young children. Each spent more than two decades in prison for crimes committed when they were teenagers. "They both went home for the first time since they were teenagers," Prasad said.

"Their stories reflect the stories of a lot of Southeast Asian refugees and just a lot of people in prison in general," he added.


Both helped fight devastating California wildfires and Keola suffered a serious neck injury when a tree fell on him last fall. "Both of them fought on the front lines of some of the worst wildfires in California history," Prasad said. After being released from prison, however, they were eligible for deportation and each spent months in federal detention facilities.

Newsom said each man has demonstrated that he is living “an upright life” and both presented evidence that because of their convictions, they faced deportation and permanent separation from their families in California, Newsom said.

"Now with the pardon, it eliminates the criminal conviction, which forms the basis for their deportation order, so they're safe from deportation and can remain in California with their families," Prasad said.

Prasad said it also means they can continue working as firefighters, something which both of them have said they wanted to do.

In a statement issued by the Asian Law Caucus, Keola said: “Being a Californian means believing that people can turn their lives around and deserve second chances but also that we are tied together and owe a duty to serve one another. I have tried my best to earn that second chance and am thankful that the governor recognized that with a pardon today.”

“I cannot express how grateful I am to have received a pardon and to finally be safe from the threat of deportation and permanent separation from my family,” Saelee said in a statement. He spent nearly a year in federal detention in Louisiana before being freed last week. “California is the only home I have ever known.”

A bill in the state Legislature, The VISION Act, would prohibit any state or local agency from aiding in immigration enforcement, including arrests, detentions and deportations. Courts also would be barred from using immigration status as a factor in denying probation. Prasad said the legislation would protect other firefighters and people like Saelee and Keola. "We need to stop this policy of reporting everyone to ICE using our California prison system," he said.

The California Constitution gives the governor authority to grant clemency. A commutation reduces the length of a prison sentence. A pardon would effectively do the same, but it also restores certain civil rights for people who have already completed their sentences.

This story includes additional reporting from KQED's Natalia Navarro and The Associated Press.

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