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Prisoner Who Fought California Wildfires Now Facing Deportation

A Laotian American man who helped fight the California wildfires while in prison is now facing deportation, The Guardian reports.

Kao Saelee, 41, had been in prison for a robbery case during his youth.

Saelee was supposed to be released from a California prison on August 6, according to The Guardian. But when the day came Saelee was taken US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and flown to an ICE jail in Louisiana. His sister, who had been waiting for him outside the prison, returned home without him.

In 2018 and 2019, Saelee served as an incarcerated firefighter. Saelee told The Guardian he was thrilled to have the opportunity. He made $1 an hour and was given better food.

“It’s hard work, but for me it was worth it to see the look on people’s faces when they know they got people out there trying to help them save their land and their homes,” Saelee said.

Despite his services as a firefighter, the California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) chose to work with ICE and ensure that Saelee could be taken into their custody.

“I paid my debt to society, and I think I should have a chance to be with my family,” Saelee told The Guardian in a recent call from the Pine Prairie Ice jail. “What is the point of sending somebody back to a country where they don’t have no family? I would be frightened out of my mind.”

Saelee is now facing deportation to Laos. He and his family fled Laos when he was two as Mien refugees, according to Democracy Now. They lived at a refugee camp in Thailand until 1987 when they moved to California.

Laos, however, does not recognize the citizenship of Mien refugees. It is unlikely that he’ll be deported there, The Guardian reports.

Saelee isn’t the first prisoner to be turned over to ICE. According to The Guardian, the state has sent hundreds of prisoners to ICE after their sentences despite having no legal obligation to do so. Governor Gavin Newsom has defended the practice.

ICE’s presence in California has remained steady during the pandemic. From July 13 to August 20, ICE arrested 300 people in the Los Angeles area, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Saelee’s deportation case is still pending. He told The Guardian he couldn’t imagine living in Laos, a country he has no memory of.

“It would be like the first time I’m walking into the prison system – scared and just lost,” he said. “If I do get deported, it’s like getting sentenced again, for life.”

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