After an incarcerated firefighter was nearly killed on the frontlines, California delivered him to Ice

After an incarcerated firefighter was nearly killed on the frontlines, California delivered him to Ice

Bounchan Keola is facing deportation to Laos, a country he left when he was four, after helping to fight this year’s historic wildfires

Bounchan Keola is facing deportation to Laos after helping to fight the Zogg fire
Bounchan Keola is facing deportation to Laos after helping to fight the Zogg fire. Illustration: Guardian Design/Francisco Navas/Photos courtesy of Keola family

California officials have transferred an incarcerated firefighter who suffered a near-death injury on the frontlines of a major blaze this fall to US immigration, and he is now threatened with deportation to a country his family fled three decades ago.

Bounchan Keola, 39, had just two weeks left in his prison term when he was crushed by a tree while battling the destructive Zogg fire in northern California on 2 October and airlifted to a hospital. Days later, California prison officials notified federal immigration agents that his release would be coming up, and the state, records show, made arrangements to directly transfer him into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice).

Keola could now be deported to Laos, a country he left when he was four.

“I just want to go home and give my mom and dad a hug,” Keola told the Guardian in a recent call from Ice detention. “All I know is I’m American. I’ve never thought of myself not being a citizen. I’m just asking for that one second chance.”

Keola grew up a US permanent resident, and is the latest refugee to face deportation as a result of California’s controversial policy of transferring certain foreign-born prisoners to Ice after they’ve completed their prison sentences, a practice governor Gavin Newsom has supported. Lawmakers across the country, including congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called on Newsom to end the transfers in September, in response to the story of Kao Saelee, another prison firefighter and Laotian refugee sent to Ice.

But the Democratic governor, it appears, has not budged.

Battling blazes: ‘First time I felt free’

Keola, born in 1981, has no memory of Laos. His family is of Khmu descent, an ethnic minority, and escaped the country after the Vietnam war. Keola has fragments of recollections of eating meals at a refugee camp in Thailand, and being terrified on the plane ride to the US.

In San Leandro, California, where the family first resettled, Keola was afraid of attending school, unable to speak English. “I was scared of people with blue eyes and blond hair. I’d never seen those features.”

He showed up to school without lunches and with clothes from Goodwill, he recalled, and was relentlessly bullied for being Asian and poor. He finally found community and protection when he met other Khmu youth in nearby Richmond, but that led him to start drinking in middle school, and he soon got caught up in gang violence. When he was 16, he was riding in a car with friends, and he and a group of them ended up shooting out of the vehicle at someone running toward them, afraid it was a member of a rival gang, he said. Two people were shot and one died.

Bounchan Keola and his younger sister, Thongsouk, grew up in northern California after their family fled Laos.
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Keola and his younger sister, Thongsouk, grew up in northern California after their family fled Laos. Photograph: Courtesy of Thongsouk Keola

Keola was prosecuted as an adult and his mother begged him to accept a plea deal, afraid he would be locked away for life if he went to trial. So he agreed to plea to second-degree attempted murder and other serious charges, accepting 28 years. He said he has spent decades behind bars trying to right his wrongs: “I didn’t just harm the victim and his family – I hurt my family and my whole community,” he said. “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.”

This year, Keola got his first opportunity to give back outside of prison – as a worker on the frontlines of California’s fires, one of thousands of incarcerated people in the state battling blazes, making $3 a day, and $1 an hour when fighting fires.

He knew people compared the work to “slave labor” given the meager wages, but he marveled at the chance to be outside, to put his hands in a river – his first time touching running water since he was a teenager. “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.”

When passersby honked in support and thanked them, he was stunned. “They treat us like firemen, not inmates. From then on, I knew this is what I was meant to do.”

Bounchan Keola family photo
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Keola was bullied at school for being Asian and poor. Photograph: Courtesy of the family

After years of criticisms that prison firefighters were barred from getting firefighting licenses once released, Newsom signed legislation in September to allow some to have their criminal records expunged so they could join fire crews after prison. Newsom posed for bill-signing photos on land scorched by one of the fires, praising the “inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires”.

The legislation meant Keola, who was nearing the end of his sentence and getting early release due to his fire service, could have a shot at a real career.

An injury, then a ‘betrayal’

On 2 October, Keola and his crew were at the fast-spreading Zogg fire near Redding, clearing brush to stop the fire from spreading. Planes above were dumping water, making it hard for them to see, he recalled. Suddenly, he heard his crew members yelling, “Tree!” just before his head was hit and he was knocked down: “I was seeing stars. I couldn’t move. I was laying flat, facedown on the ground.”

Keola had to be airlifted out. The rope hoisting 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 survived. There were a handful of local news reports on the incident, mentioning two unnamed inmate firefighters suffering injuries.

Keola’s release date was just two weeks away. He thought he might remain in the hospital until then, but instead he was sent back to prison, with recommendations for a follow up medical appointment the day before his release. His medical records list “traumatic neck injury”, and Keola wore a neck brace.

In prison, he wasn’t treated or monitored by doctors, he said. Instead, he was placed in isolation: “I felt like I was being punished because I got hurt. I felt sad and betrayed.” (His records say he was in “quarantine”, suggesting he may have been isolated for Covid protocols.) He was taking ibuprofen everyday, trying to sleep on his stomach due to the pain.

Bounchan Keola and his family are of Khmu descent, an ethnic minority that the government in Laos doesn’t recognize.
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Keola and his family are of Khmu descent, an ethnic minority that the government in Laos doesn’t recognize. Photograph: Courtesy of the family

Meanwhile, his family, who lives in Pinole about 22 miles north-east of San Francisco, were making plans for his release. His sister, Thongsouk Keola, 36, said she took a week off work and planned to stay at a hotel near the prison so she could be outside waiting for him on the morning of 16 October.

But two days prior, Ice agents told Keola their agency would be picking him up instead. His stomach started churning., he recalled.

He rang his sister and told her not to bother coming.

“It’s just so unfair. He has served for so many years,” Thongsouk said. “We know he is a different person now. We are here and ready and willing to take him in, and take all responsibility.”

How Newsom could intervene

The California governor’s office has not responded to the Guardian’s repeated inquiries on the state’s policy of transferring prisoners to Ice. At one press conference, Newsom told a reporter it was “appropriate” and has “been done historically”.

That’s despite the fact that the state has no legal obligation to collaborate with Ice and that California has a “sanctuary state” lawmeant to limit cooperation with immigration authorities and protect residents from deportation. Prison officials, however, say they comply with Ice’s “detainers”, meaning requests for people in custody who the federal government considers eligible for deportation.

That includes longtime residents with green cards who are facing deportation due to convictions. Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), and Keola’s lawyer, said it’s unlikely federal agents would have known he was getting out if the state hadn’t alerted Ice.

California has transferred more than 500 people from prison to Ice this year, according to ALC. Prasad and other activists have long been pushing for Newsom to end the policy altogether – and to issue pardons to people such as Keola and Saelee, which would mean they are no longer threatened with deportation.

“Governor Newsom has pointed to pardons as a way to correct past injustices in the criminal system,” said Prasad. He noted that there is also no reason to believe any of this would change under the new administration of president-elect Joe Biden – who has signaled he would continue to deport people with criminal convictions. “It is not enough to just reverse what Donald Trump did. Governor Newsom has to take a hard look at the policies he’s adopted.”

Keola has simple dreams about returning to his family and hopes to spend time with his elderly parents.
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Keola has simple dreams about returning to his family and hopes to spend time with his elderly parents. Photograph: Courtesy of Thongsouk Keola

What’s more, the nation of Laos does not recognize the citizenship of Khmu refugees like Keola, so it’s unclear if his birth country would accept him. Still, he is facing deportation hearings, and Prasad and his family fear that Ice could find a way to deport him anyway.

Spokespeople for the governor did not respond to repeated inquiries. Newsom has issued 63 pardons during his tenure, including ten this week to immigrants who would have faced deportation. Keola and Saelee were not on his list.

A spokeswoman for the state corrections department said the agency “does not determine the immigration status of inmates” and that Ice “makes the determination of whether to put a hold or detainer on the inmate”. Keola, she said, was “released” on 16 October. The department declined to comment on Keola’s medical treatment.

After publication, the state corrections spokeswoman said her comments on “transferring inmates to Ice” were also made “on behalf of the Newsom administration”, adding that the transfers are allowed under the state’s sanctuary law. Ice did not initially respond to inquiries, but on Thursday sent an email calling Keola a “Laotian national” and “felon who is subject to removal”, adding, “resident aliens convicted of certain crimes are removable regardless of how long they have resided within the United States”.

In Ice, Keola’s neck pain is on and off. Doctors there told him it appeared he has kidney problems – and shouldn’t have been taking ibuprofen, he said.

He has simple dreams about returning to his family. “I just want to help my mom clean, wash the dishes, do the laundry, even to water her garden. Play with my nephews and nieces. I just want to be there for them.”

If he were to be deported, Keola has one request: that Ice at least let him out briefly so he has one chance to be with his elderly parents outside the walls of prison.