A California resident, who served a lengthy prison sentence for a gang-related shooting when he was 16, was among the thousands of firefighters who helped battle the vicious wildfires that devastated California this year. Bounchan Keola, who was released early on his 28-year sentence, is now at risk of being deported, CBS News reported.
Keola was supposed to be released in October but was instead transferred from the prison to an immigration detention facility in McFarland by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the outlet.
Keola, now 39, is a legal U.S. resident having fled Laos with his parents when he was two. Despite his residency, federal law allows for immigrants to be deported if they have certain criminal convictions, according to CBS News. Transfers of this nature, where the state has moved an inmate to federal immigration authorities, have happened to an estimated 1,265 inmates this year alone.
His lawyer, Anoop Prasad, told the outlet that Keola's family were U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam war and fled the country when the war ended to avoid persecution. They settled in California in 1988 and became permanent residents.
Their neighborhood had reportedly high rates of violence and Keola fell victim to the circumstances and joined a gang as a means of protection, his lawyer told the outlet.
Good behavior granted Keola work as a volunteer firefighter –– which led him to assist in the most recent wildfires where he was one of 1,800 inmates who volunteered to combat the fires.
A federal judge has ordered Keola's deportation but the country of Laos has to accept him first. He will undergo an interview next week with Laos officials since he does not have any proof of birth.
"I'm trying to be patient, just hoping that I'll get out of here soon and not face deportation and go back to a country I know nothing of and where my family and I fled for a better life," he said. "I'm just asking for a second chance to live this American life and to be a firefighter."
Discussions among politicians have raised the question of whether it is necessary to deport Keola.
"These are people who have done their time. They paid their debt to society," State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco said. "We should be integrating them back into our community, and not facilitating the Trump deportation machine."