My Refugee Cousin is the Head of ICE

“As the director of ICE … my cousin [Tony Pham] will be deporting people for whom there is no path at all, even if they have paid taxes here for many years or are Dreamers who were brought here as children. He will fight to block more refugees from following in his own footsteps.”

Tony Pham ICE director
“It saddens me to think that [my cousin Tony Pham] is trying to repay his own debt to this nation by enforcing a cruel and broken immigration system,” writes Philippa Hughes. (@DirectorICEgov / Twitter)

My cousin Tony Pham was recently appointed by President Trump to head U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Normally I’d be proud to see someone with an Asian face ascend to a position of power in America—particularly a Vietnamese person and a family member. Instead, I was dismayed when my mom forwarded a news article titled, “Trump administration taps Vietnam refugee as new ICE chief.”

As someone who started a project called Looking For America, which creates space for bipartisan conversations around the immigrant experiences and what it means to be American, my cousin’s new job deporting undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers is anathema to my beliefs.

Tony, or Teo as I have known him since childhood, has long been active in Republican politics in our adopted home state of Virginia. I am a lifelong Democrat who has been marching regularly since the 2016 election to protest racist and xenophobic rhetoric and policies from the current administration. Attacks on immigrants of all backgrounds have alarmed me and strengthened my resolve to support them however I can. 

I have never spoken to my cousin about any of this. When he ran for county prosecutor back in 2015, I declined to donate money to his campaign. He was family and I respected his conservative beliefs, but I could not support them. He unfriended me from Facebook after that. I emailed him when I heard the news of his appointment to ask if we could talk. I have not heard from him. 

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My cousin has his own reasons for taking this politically fraught position, but I hope he does not feel he must continually prove his loyalty simply because he has an Asian face. I fear he is allowing his refugee identity to give political cover to a president who has been trying to eliminate all paths to citizenship since the beginning of his administration. This includes refugees. 

In 1975, the year my cousin came to this country, he was among 125,000 Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the U.S. This year, President Trump capped the number of refugees our country would accept at 18,000 worldwide. Had my cousin needed refuge in the United States today, the chances he would be permitted to enter would seem incredibly slim. 

It’s worth noting, too, that President Ford fought for the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees like my cousin despite strong public opposition. As he explained,

“[To] ignore the refugees in their hour of need would be to repudiate the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants, and I was not about to let Congress do that.”  

My cousin and I were both born outside the U.S., but our American origin stories are very different. While I am a citizen by birthright because my father was American, my cousin entered this country as a refugee fleeing communism. His father served alongside the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, an affiliation that would have meant torture and possible death after the war ended.

I never suffered the humiliation of seeking asylum from a begrudging host. I simply presented my passport at the airport and walked straight into California sunshine. Maybe this difference in our experiences helps explain the contrast in our political views.  

My cousin says, “When we came to this nation seeking hope and opportunity as refugees, I signed a promissory note to America. I owe a debt for my freedoms and opportunities which must be repaid.”  

I understand what it’s like to profess one’s love for America in order to fit in. I used to wear lots of flag-themed clothing so people would know I was a “real” American. I know now, though, that my Asian face does not make me less American. And I know we don’t demand such loyalty pledges from white Americans.

Tony Pham ICE director
In Minneapolis, on June 30, 2018, about 10,000 people gathered downtown and marched through the streets to protest against immigrant children being taken from their families. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

As the director of ICE, assuming he intends to continue the president’s agenda, my cousin will be deporting people for whom there is no path at all, even if they have paid taxes here for many years or are Dreamers who were brought here as children. He will fight to block more refugees from following in his own footsteps.

He will also be removing the path for people who live here lawfully. This includes 30 Vietnamese immigrants who were deported last month despite an agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam that no Vietnamese immigrants who resettled in the U.S. before July 1995 would be deported. Under this administration, would our own family members who arrived in 1975 be at risk of deportation?

It didn’t matter that these deported Vietnamese Americans had lived for years in this country or were forced to leave behind their spouses and children. Their removal reveals that the U.S. government never really thought they belonged here, that they were always outsiders. We never fully accepted their humanity.

Does my cousin feel the same way? Not just about these unlucky deportees, but about himself? It saddens me to think that he is trying to repay his own debt to this nation by enforcing a cruel and broken immigration system. 

I am proud to be American. But I believe my debt is to the future. My debt is to the American ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity for all—the values we cherish as a nation. 

I am deeply thankful for the accident of birth that granted me the inalienable rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, including the right to speak freely and disagree with my government’s policies. A healthy democracy depends on the give and take of respectful debate between citizens who hold opposing views. Sometimes things don’t always work that way in families.

While I know that my cousin and I will never see eye to eye on this issue and many others, I believe we all need to challenge ourselves to talk to our fellow Americans, even when we disagree. Especially when we disagree. Our country depends on it.

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Philippa Hughes is the director of Looking For America, which organizes bipartisan dialogues and art experiences asking what it means to be American around the country.