CA inmate fought record-breaking wildfires this year, now faces deportation

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After serving a 28-year prison sentence for a gang-related shooting when he was 16, Bounchan Keola was treated like a hero after playing his part in battling California’s record-setting wildfires this year.

"For the first time in my life, I felt good about myself," Keola told CBS News.

Now Keola, 39, who because of good behavior earned his right to fight fires, faces deportation back to Laos.

Keola, now a legal resident of the U.S. after fleeing Laos with his parents, was set to be released in October. Then federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked him up from the prison and transferred him to an immigration detention facility in McFarland. Federal law allows immigrants with specific convictions to be deported.

California law allows local agencies the ability not to cooperate with federal immigration for some crimes, but that doesn’t apply to state prisons. In 2020, California prisons handed over about 1,265 inmates to immigration authorities, according to reporting by CBS News.

Keola spoke to reporters by phone from his ICE detention center. His lawyer Anoop Prasad said that Keola’s family fought alongside U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and fled Laos to resettle in the U.S. in 1988.

“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,” he said. “I’m just asking for a second chance to live this American life and to be a firefighter.”

In 2001, he was convicted of second-degree attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Keola has been ordered by a federal judge to be deported, but Laos has to agree to take him and Keola doesn’t have any identifying documents showing that he was born in the country. Laos officials will interview him next month.

“These are people who have done their time. They paid their debt to society,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, told the Washington Post. “We should be integrating them back into our community, and not facilitating the Trump deportation machine.”