Inmate Firefighter Injured Battling Multiple California Wildfires Faces ICE Deportation

A California inmate fire crew member, who was injured while battling blazes during the state's record-breaking wildfire season, is facing deportation to Laos, the Southeast Asian country he and his family fled when he was 2 years old.

Bounchan Keola, a 41-year-old permanent U.S. resident whose family is based just outside San Francisco, is among the many inmates who fought wildfires in California this year.

Keola suffered a "traumatic neck injury," according to medical records, The Guardian reported. With about two weeks left before his prison release, he was sent back to prison in Sacramento where he was not treated or monitored by doctors. He took ibuprofen every day while in prison to help with his injury, according to Keola.

Just two days before his scheduled release date of October 16, Keola was told that agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be taking him to a detention center.

His deportation was ordered by an immigration judge on October 29. He remains at the Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility in McFarland of Kern County. It has not yet known when he will be deported.

Keola told Newsweek: "Despite what my papers might say, I feel that I am an American and a Californian. This is the only home that I have ever known. To me, being a Californian means believing that people can turn their lives around and that we have a duty to protect one another.

"I have tried my best to earn that second chance. I also feel that I have a duty to continue making amends for mistakes I made as a teenager by protecting California as a firefighter. I hope to be able to do that."

The lawyer representing Keola, Anoop Prasad, a senior staff attorney for immigrant rights at Asian Law Caucus, told Newsweek: "Several elected officials have supported him by sharing his story and sending letters of support for his pardon to the governor's office.

"He is scheduled to be interviewed by the embassy of Laos on December 22 for issuance of a travel document to allow him to be deported. The timeline after that is unclear."

The National Immigration Law Center explains: "Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, non-citizens can be removed from the United States if they violate either the statutory grounds of 'inadmissibility' or 'deportability.'

"You may be subject to removal on deportability grounds if you have been lawfully admitted into the United States and have been convicted of an aggravated felony," or other crimes, the center notes.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, resident aliens convicted of certain crimes are subject to removal regardless of the number of years they've lived in the U.S. The decision for removal is made by an immigration judge following a comprehensive review of the individual's criminal and immigration histories.

ICE said in a statement: "Based on his criminal convictions, Keola is an aggravated felon who is subject to removal and mandatory ICE detention. On October 29, an immigration judge ordered his removal to Laos. He will remain in ICE custody, pending removal."

At the age of 16, Keola was caught up in gang violence, which saw him and his friends in a shootout with a group they thought were from a rival gang. Two people were shot and one died, which ultimately led to his imprisonment.

Keola was sentenced to 28 years for second-degree attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm in 2001, according to a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Speaking to Newsweek, the press secretary for the CDCR, Dana Simas, said: "CDCR does not determine the immigration status of inmates in state custody. Pursuant to state law, CDCR collects available information about an inmate during reception center processing when the inmate is placed in CDCR's custody after adjudication. ICE makes the determination of whether to put a hold or detainer on the inmate and is responsible for forwarding the hold or detainer to CDCR."

Helping to fight fires during this California wildfire season marked Keola's first step towards turning his life around. "I can't take back what I did. But I can make amends and live differently and do whatever I can to help the next person," he told The Guardian.

Keola was grateful for the opportunity to be outside prison walls while fighting fires. "There was no fence, no barbed-wire, no tower, nobody with a gun waiting for you. I felt free for the first time in 22 years," he said.

Despite California's sanctuary law, which largely bans local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with ICE, the state's prison system has continued a policy of transferring prisoners to federal immigration detention centers for several years.

The practice has been supported by California Gov. Gavin Newsom who previously told a reporter that it was "appropriate" and has "been done historically," at a press conference.

The press secretary for Newsom, Jesse Melgar, said in a statement:"We are unable to discuss individual clemency applications, but can assure that each application receives careful and individualized consideration."

This year California has transferred more than 500 people from prison to ICE, according to Asian Law Caucus.

It is unlikely that ICE would have been aware of Keola's prison release if the state hadn't alerted them, according to Prasad, The Guardian reported.

Asian Law Caucus has launched a petition on Change.org calling on Newsom to pardon Keola. It has received more than 3,200 signatures, as of November 19.

"His story is really similar to that of an entire generation of refugees that resettled in the U.S. from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam," Prasad told The Chronicle. "He served his time. He had a pretty clean record when he was in prison.

"He has no memory of Laos. If he is deported to Laos, I'm at a total loss as to what he would do," he added.

Keola helped fight blazes including the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, one of the most destructive wildfires in California history, as well as the Zogg Fire, which led to a severe injury.

On October 2, Keola was hit by a falling tree while fighting the Zogg Fire in Shasta County. He was airlifted to a hospital but the rope pulling him up got caught on a tree and he started rapidly spinning. "I was thinking, I'm gonna die. I started praying. I was like, God wants me to go. This is my time. I closed my eyes," he told The Guardian.

Doctors at ICE have told him he appeared to have kidney problems and should not have been taking ibuprofen while he was in prison, according to Keola.

As of October 20, there are about 1,800 inmates working at fire camps and around 1,200 of those are "fire line-qualified inmates," according to the CDCR.

In September, a new bill was approved that could allow former prisoners in California who have been trained at fire camps to have their criminal records expunged and apply to become firefighters.

Update 11/19/20: This article has been updated with comment from Keola and Asian Law Caucus.

Inmate firefighters California August 2020
Inmate firefighters arrive at the scene of the Water fire, a new start about 20 miles from the Apple fire in Whitewater, California on August 2. An inmate firefighter who was injured in the Zogg Fire this year is facing deportation after being released from prison and transferred to an ICE detention center. Getty Images