California Gov. Gavin Newsom has pardoned two youth offenders from Laos who became firefighters.
Bounchan Keola, 39, and Kao Saelee, 41, were transported to U.S. immigration authorities last year after serving decades in prison, where they battled wildfires as incarcerated firefighters, according to The Guardian.
Keola and Saelee told their story to the Guardian from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jail last fall, which led to national outrage about their potential deportation. Both the Keola and Saelee families faced persecution after the Vietnam war and fled to the U.S. as refugees, approximately 40 years ago.
“I could never have imagined this would happen,” Saelee told the Guardian by phone after he heard he had been pardoned. Saelee’s family arrived in the United States from Laos when he was just 2 years old, and he spent 22 years in prison for a robbery when he was a teenager. He was released from ICE jail and came home to his family in Fresno, Calif. area.
At the age of 16, Keola was prosecuted as an adult and accepted a plea deal to second-degree murder. He then served more than two decades in prison, the Guardian reported.
Toward the end of Keola’s sentence, he was on the frontlines of a massive wildfire as part of an inmate firefighting program, where he was hit by a fallen tree and suffered a near-fatal injury.
Keola was recovering from his injuries in an ICE jail, where he had been transferred by the prison after serving his sentence, when Gov. Newsom phoned him to deliver the good news. “I thought somebody was trying to prank me, but [the governor] said, ‘Thank you for your services as a firefighter and keep up the good work.’” Keola told the Guardian.
Newsom’s May 28 pardons mean that both men can return to being legal permanent residents and can eventually apply for citizenship, said Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, who has represented both men.
“This is all I wanted — a second chance to live this American life. We came to this country to have a better life,” Keola told the Guardian. Keola is hopeful he now can serve as a licensed firefighter.
“It’s a huge relief, and I’m incredibly happy for Kao and Boun and their families who for the past year have been constantly worried that they would be permanently separated,” Prasad said. “I’m glad Gov. Newsom was able to see that they are more than their convictions from when they were teenagers, and I hope he sees the same is true for so many people inside prison.”
After Saelee and Keola told their stories, lawmakers across California asked Newsom to pardon them and advocated for legislation to end transfers from prisons to ICE jail, which would protect people from deportation. Advocates call the transfers a double punishment, a policy that continues under President Biden, according to the Guardian.