Two refugees from Laos who have battled some of California’s biggest wildfires have been granted pardons by California Governor Gavin Newsom.
Both Kao Saelee and Bounchan Keola expressed gratitude for the second chance given to them.
“I have tried my best to earn that second chance and am thankful that the Governor recognized that with a pardon,” said Keola.
“I cannot express how grateful I am to have received a pardon and to finally be safe from the threat of deportation and permanent separation from my family,” said Saelee.
He is a Mien refugee from Laos turned over to Immigration and Customers Enforcement. This past summer, Saelee completed his 22 year sentence for a robbery and firing a shot in the air. Instead of releasing him, the California Department of Corrections turned him over to ICE. Without a pardon, he would likely have been deported.
Keola sustained serious injuries fighting the Zogg Wildifires in California just two weeks short of completing his sentence. At the age of 16, he was in a carload full of teens who shot back at shooters coming after them with guns. He accepted a plea deal that put him in prison for nearly three decades.
This past summer he was nearly killed when a tree fell on top of him while battling the Zogg Fire as an incarcerated firefighter.
“Governor Newsom’s pardons of Kao Saelee and Bounchan Keola affirm that each of us is far more than a mistake made decades ago,” said Anoop Prasad, Senior Staff Attorney, Immigrant Rights at Asian Law Caucus. “As California works to address decades of misguided policies that led to mass incarceration, we cannot repeat those cruel practices by turning people granted freedom over to ICE’s brutal deportation machine. Governor Newsom must ensure that others do not have to go through the same experience as Mr. Saelee and Mr. Keola by ending his voluntary policy of working with ICE to deport Californians.”
Both Saelee and Keola came to the U.S. as refugee children due to the Vietnam War. Both men have made amends for their past mistakes and will now be able to stay in the only place they have ever called home.
The Asian Law Caucus is supporting the VISION Act (AB 937-Carrillo) which would ensure that an immigrant deemed eligible for release from state prison or local jail would not be turned over to ICE and instead would be able to reunite with their family and community.
“The past ten months in ICE detention in Louisiana have been incredibly difficult. California is the only home I have ever known and I hope the state chooses to stop turning over its residents to ICE so that no one else will have to go through this,” Saelee said.
“Despite what my papers might say, I feel that I am an American and a Californian. This country and this state are the only home I have known. Being a Californian means believing that people can turn their lives around and deserve second chances but also that we are tied together and owe a duty to serve one another,” said Keola,
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