ICE Releases Man Set for Deportation Back to His Family in California

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a man headed for deportation to Laos after lawmakers, organizations and members of the public campaigned for his freedom for months.

Back home: Kao Saelee, 41, who was detained at a facility in Louisiana in August, returned to his family in California on Wednesday, according to KTVU.

  • His family are Mien refugees who fled Laos during the Vietnam War, resettling in California by 1987. 
  • Due to a robbery case in his youth, Saelee served 22 years in prison. He was later qualified to work as an incarcerated firefighter in 2018 and 2019, and reportedly “[battled] some of the state’s worst wildfires.”
  • Though he was scheduled for release on Aug. 6, 2020, he was turned over to ICE.
  • Since then, there had been an outpour of calls for Saelee’s release, including over 200,000 petition signatures and support from dozens of California legislators, according to the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), which co-led the “#FreeSaelee” campaign with AIM California, Iu Mien Community Services and Pawsitive Change Prison Program.
  • “I am grateful to finally be free and headed to the only home I have known – California,” Saelee said after his release, adding that his past 10 months in ICE detention had been “incredibly difficult.”

Calls for legislation: More than 130 organizations have urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to pardon Saelee and abolish the practice of deporting immigrants who have earned release from state prison or local jail.

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  • The VISION Act, authored by California Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, would ensure that like any other Californian, an immigrant deemed eligible for release would not be turned over to ICE and would instead reunite with their family and community.
  • This includes individuals who have “completed their sentence, been granted parole, had charges dropped, or been granted release by a judge.” 
  • “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,” said Anoop Prasad, senior staff attorney for immigrant rights at ALC.

Bounchan Keola, 39, another formerly incarcerated firefighter, was released from ICE custody in January with the help of ALC. He is Khmu and was also set for deportation to Laos.

Featured Images via Kao Saelee (left) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus (right)

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