California Firefighter Kao Saelee Released from ICE Detention 


May 20, 2021

California Firefighter Kao Saelee Released from ICE Detention 

Kao Saelee Comes Home After Transfer to ICE Devastated His Family

VISION Act to End Prison-to-ICE Deportation Pipeline Passes CA Assembly Appropriations Committee and Heads to Assembly Floor Vote


SAN FRANCISCO (May 20, 2021) — Today, formerly incarcerated firefighter Kao Saelee returned home to California. He was released earlier this week from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Louisiana where he has been since August during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Saelee is a Mien refugee who was turned over to ICE by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) after serving his sentence. In 2018 and 2019, Mr. Saelee served as an incarcerated firefighter battling some of the state’s worst wildfires.

Finally home with his family after 22 years and surviving the COVID-19 pandemic in prison and detention, Kao Saelee said: 

“I am grateful to finally be free and reunited with my family in California, the only home I have ever known. The past ten months in ICE detention in Louisiana have been incredibly difficult. I hope that California chooses to stop turning over its residents to ICE so that no one else will have to go through this.”

Saelee’s release follows a groundswell of support, including nearly 200,000 petition signatures and support from dozens of California Assemblymembers, state Senators, the Latino Legislative Caucus, the Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and over 130 organizations urging Governor Newsom to pardon Mr. Saelee and halt the painful practice of transferring community members who have earned release from prison or jail to ICE for deportation. 

The campaign to #FreeSaelee was co-led by the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), AIM California, Iu Mien Community Services, and Pawsitive Change Prison Program.

In light of Kao Saelee’s release, the Asian Law Caucus is calling on Governor Newsom to pardon Mr. Saelee and the California State Legislature to pass the VISION Act (AB 937-Carrillo) so that immigrant community members are no longer double punished because of where they were born. The bill would ensure that like any other Californian, an immigrant deemed eligible for release from state prison or local jail would not be turned over to ICE detention and instead would be able to reunite with their family and community. This includes a community member who has completed their sentence, been granted parole, had charges dropped, or been granted release by a judge. 

The VISION Act has received growing support over the past few weeks, including from California’s Democractic Party, the Latino Legislative Caucus, and the API Legislative Caucus and the city and county governments of San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Ana. This morning, the bill passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee and now heads to the full Assembly Floor. 

Over the past decade, Asian Law Caucus has joined with immigrant rights,  criminal justice, and faith-based organizations through the ICE out of CA statewide coalition to end the prison to ICE deportation pipeline and bring formerly incarcerated people like Kao Saelee back to their loved ones and communities. In the last year, ALC and our partners have celebrated the release of Chanthon Bun (who has since become ALC’s Yuri Kochiyama Fellow), Nayeli Pena, and Bounchan Keola (another formerly incarcerated firefighter) while continuing to advocate for the VISION Act. 

In response to Saelee’s release, Anoop Prasad, Senior Staff Attorney for Immigrant Rights at Asian Law Caucus, said:

“Kao Saelee’s release affirms that each of us is far more than a mistake made decades ago. 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 by ending his voluntary policy of working with ICE to deport Californians. The California State Legislature must pass and Governor Newsom must sign the VISION Act to stop this practice once and for all.”

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who supported Mr. Saelee’s release, said:

“I am relieved to welcome Mr. Saelee home and thank him for all of his service in helping fight California wildfires. California should not be turning community members who have served our state and earned their release over to ICE. Mr. Saelee’s case has shown how unfair and unjust ICE transfers can be. Like many immigrants and refugees in California, Mr. Saelee came to this country as a child. He deserves to stay here in the only home he has ever known. I urge Governor Newsom to pardon Mr. Saelee to stop his deportation.”

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, author of the VISION Act, said:

“I urge passage of the VISION Act so that more community members do not have to go through what Kao Saelee has been through, separation from his family and almost a year of ICE detention in inhumane conditions. When local law enforcement and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation assist with transfers of individuals to ICE they are subjecting non-citizens to double punishment and creating a justice system that is unequal and unjust. They are ignoring the individual’s record of rehabilitation, stable re-entry plan, and their network of community and family support. To be clear, the State of California is currently double punishing people who are rehabilitated simply because of where they were born. The ways in which our law enforcement and justice systems disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, Latino, and AAPI communities are well known. The VISION Act law helps us keep our commitment to systemic criminal justice reform by acknowledging its intersection with immigrant rights. It helps us keep our promise to foster a California For All, not just a California for some.”


About Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC)

ALC was founded in 1972 as the nation’s first legal and civil rights Asian American organization. Recognizing that social, economic, political and racial inequalities continue to exist in the United States, ALC is committed to the pursuit of equality and justice for all sectors of our society, with a specific focus directed toward addressing the needs of low-income, immigrant and underserved Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

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