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Reo Multiple Injured Firefighter Battling California Wildfires Faces Deportation Ice

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A California inmate fire crew member, who was injured while battling fires during the state’s record-breaking wildfire season, is facing deportation to Laos, the Southeast Asian country he and his family fled over 30 years ago at the age of two.

Bounchan Keola, a 39-year-old permanent U.S. resident whose family is based just outside San Francisco, is among the many inmates who were fighting at the front lines of several wildfires in California this year.

Keola suffered a “traumatic neck injury,” according to medical records, The Guardian reported. With around 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 prison 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 detained at the Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility in McFarland of Kern County. It has yet to be known exactly when Keola will be deported but he has an interview with the Laotian Consulate on December 22, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

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.

Jonathan Moor, a spokesman for ICE, said in a statement: “Based on his criminal convictions, Keola is an aggravated felon who is subject to removal and mandatory ICE detention.”

At the age of 16, Keola was caught up in gang violence, which saw him and his friends in a shoot out with a group of others who they thought were from a rival gang. The incident saw two people shot, one of whom died, and ultimately led to his imprisonment.

Keola was sentenced to 28 years in prison 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).

Helping to fight fires during this California wildfire season marked his first step towards turning his life around as well as freedom. “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 existing 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 the policy was “appropriate” and has “been done historically,” at a press conference.

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

It is unlikely that ICE would have been aware of Keola’s prison release if the state hadn’t alerted them, according to Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney at the ALC who is representing Keola, noted, The Guardian reported.

ALC has since launched a petition on Change.org calling on Newsom to pardon Keola, which has received at least 1,500 signatures, as of Friday.

“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 several California fires this year 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. The injury saw him 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 the 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.

Newsweek has contacted ICE, the governor’s office, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Asian Law Caucus for comment.

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

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

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.
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