Man Who Helped Fight California Wildfires Sent to ICE for Deportation

Kao Saelee

Kao Saelee was supposed to be released last month after serving 22 years in prison, but he was transferred instead to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation, according to the Guardian.

Paying his debts to society: Saelee, who was jailed for a robbery case from his youth, not only served his sentence but also worked as an incarcerated firefighter for California in 2018 and 2019.

  • California’s program that has sent thousands of inmates to respond to wildfires has operated for decades.
  • The 41-year-old inmate qualified for the firefighting opportunity near the end of his sentence because of good behavior.
  • Saelee, like many incarcerated firefighters, received $2 to $5 a day for the task of saving lives and property.
  • “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,” he was quoted as saying.
  • When the long hours and work eventually took a toll on him, Saelee found a support system of people who kept him focused on programs that would aid him in rehabilitation.
  • He lost friends on the wildfire frontlines, causing him to relapse on his drug addiction and eventually lose his post.
  • Despite the tragedies he experienced, Saelee developed a dream to someday be able to work as a professional firefighter when he finally gets his freedom.
  • However, just as Saelee was preparing for his scheduled release on Aug. 6, the California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) decided to hand him over to federal agents. 

Future unknown: Saelee’s family fled Laos as refugees when he was two years old and now is facing deportation to his country of birth. 

  • “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,” he was quoted as saying. 
  • Saelee’s family is of Mien descent, an ethnic minority that faced persecution for siding with the U.S. during the Vietnam war.
  • His family resettled in California in 1987 after fleeing to a refugee camp in Thailand.
  • Anoop Prasad, an Asian Law Caucus (ALC) staff lawyer representing Saelee, compared his client’s situation to many other young Southeast Asian refugees resettled in California who were driven into “violence, poverty and incarceration.”
  • With Laos currently not recognizing the citizenship of Mien refugees, Saelee’s deportation case is uncertain and may leave him indefinitely incarcerated.
  • As Saelee awaits for a hearing, he remains jailed in a facility in Louisiana that has had more than 60 COVID-19 cases.
  • Cases like Saelee’s have prompted immigration rights advocates to denounce Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders to transfer people from state prisons to ICE custody.

A Change petition has been created by Asian Law Caucus: Asian Americans Advancing Justice urging Governor Newsom to #StopICEtransfers from CDCR and for the immediate release of Saelee.

Image via Kao Saelee

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