- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The man tapped to lead the country’s immigration enforcement agency was once a refugee himself.

Tony H. Pham, whose family fled Saigon in 1975 and rebuilt their lives in Virginia, winning American citizenship a decade later, told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview that it was “humbling” to be named this week as the senior official performing the duties of director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

He said his history as a refugee, going through the process himself and growing up as part of a migrant community, gives him a powerful perspective for an agency that’s at the forefront of the heated debate over immigration enforcement policy.

“I hope it lends credibility when I say that experience will allow me to engage in thoughtful and meaningful deliberations when I make decisions that impact the direction of his organization,” he said.

It could be particularly valuable as he faces scrutiny from Democrats on Capitol Hill who question much of ICE’s immigration activities, compare his agents and officers to the Ku Klux Klan, and at times oppose the agency’s very existence.

“The folks who are asking questions are asking questions of a person whose family went through it. We’ve experienced it,” Mr. Pham said.

As he takes the reins, he said one goal will be to “shield” ICE’s employees from the verbal name-calling. And he said he can empathize since as someone who came to the country as an ethnic minority, he too has “been called just as bad names.”

“It’s not a good feeling,” he told The Times. “I’m going to fight for them, and I’m going to begin to do the best I can to change the narrative of how they’re being portrayed.”

Mr. Pham himself was already becoming a target on Twitter, where President Trump’s critics accused him of betraying his Asian immigrant story by taking ICE’s top job.

“I’m sick of these ‘good refugees’ who are happy to shut the door against ‘bad refugees.’ They forget that love and compassion let them in, not law & order,” wrote Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist.

Mr. Pham said his mother boarded a plane out of Saigon with her three children based on a recommendation letter from the embassy. They went through Guam to a refugee camp in Arkansas, then were sponsored to settle in Virginia. His father, a South Vietnamese soldier, followed later.

His parents, both professionals in Vietnam, had to start over. His mother worked as a seamstress while his father, an engineer, took work as a mechanic and janitor.

“We had to work our way back,” he said.

Mr. Pham is being elevated from his current post as principal legal advisor at ICE, overseeing the agency’s lawyers. He’s also been a local prosecutor in Virginia where he worked homicide cases, and then ran Richmond’s gang prosecution unit. He’s also served as lawyer for a sheriff’s office and was superintendent of a jail, giving him a wide range of experiences in law enforcement.

ICE is responsible for arresting illegal immigrants caught in the country’s interior, for presenting cases to immigration judges, and for holding and deporting migrants ordered removed. The agency also plays major roles in targeting gangs, sniffing out counterfeit goods and stopping child pornographers.

Mr. Pham takes over the job from Matthew Albence, who had been acting chief for more than a year and announced his retirement in July.

ICE has not had a permanent confirmed director during the Trump administration.

Mr. Pham will find himself immediately thrust into a debate over ICE’s budget.

President Trump requested a significant boost for fiscal year 2021, but House Democrats, furious at ICE’s role in arresting illegal immigrants and battling sanctuary cities, instead proposed cutting nearly $700 million out of the agency and limiting how many migrants it can detain.

Mr. Pham declined to delve too deeply into those budget fights at this point, but did defend some requests such as money for more ICE lawyers to argue cases to immigration judges. Congress has been eager to boost the number of judges, but without more lawyers, the number of cases will still be limited.

Mr. Pham said that isn’t fair to immigrants themselves, who are in the courts to try to win some sort of relief. If their hearings get delayed, they miss out.

“They really can’t have that meaningful court hearing without both sides being properly represented,” he said.

ICE may be the most controversial agency in government. Its offices and migrant detention facilities face regular protests and attacks. A man attacked a detention facility in Washington state last year, and rioters in Portland shut down ICE’s office in that city for several weeks in 2018.

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