Formerly Incarcerated California Firefighters Kao Saelee and Bounchan Keola Earn Pardons from Governor Newsom

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May 28, 2021

Formerly Incarcerated California Firefighters Kao Saelee and Bounchan Keola Earn Pardons from Governor Newsom

Pardons bolster to campaign to pass VISION Act, which would stop double-punishment of immigrant Californians

 

San Francisco (May 28, 2021) — Today, formerly incarcerated firefighters Kao Saelee and Bounchan Keola obtained pardons from Governor Gavin Newsom. Mr. Saelee is a Mien refugee from Laos who was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) after serving his sentence, despite having served as an incarcerated firefighter battling some of the state’s worst wildfires. Mr. Keola is a Khmu refugee from Laos who also served as an firefighter while incarcerated and was injured while fighting wildfires in October 2020. CDCR called ICE to have him arrested shortly after his injury on the frontlines.

Mr. Saelee and Mr. Keola’s pardons come on the heels of a groundswell of state and national support, including over 200,000 petition signatures and support from elected officials, organizations and advocates across the country. 

Mr. Saelee and Mr. Keola both came to the U.S. as refugee children because of the Vietnam War. They were resettled in low-income neighborhoods that were under-resourced and over-policed where they experienced bullying and violence, and as a result, were funnelled into the state prison system as youth.  A pardon does not erase the harm caused to them in their youth nor does it erase their lifelong commitment to making amends. Rather, a pardon recognizes that both men have worked to make amends and allows them to continue serving the only place they have ever called home. 

In light of Kao Saelee and Bounchan Keola’s pardons, the Asian Law Caucus is calling on 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, the API Legislative Caucus, the California Labor Federation, and the city and county governments of San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Ana. Last week, the bill passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee and now heads to the Assembly Floor next week. 

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

In response, Anoop Prasad, Senior Staff Attorney, Immigrant Rights at Asian Law Caucus releases the following statement:

“Governor Newsom’s pardons of Kao Saelee and Bounchan Keola affirm 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 and Mr. Keola by ending his voluntary policy of working with ICE to deport Californians.”

Kao Saelee issues the following statement:

“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. 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.”

Bounchan Keola issues the following statement:

“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. I have tried my best to earn that second chance and am thankful that the Governor recognized that with a pardon today.”

 

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. https://www.advancingjustice-alc.org/

 

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