Tien Pham, who fled Vietnam as a child war refugee, has spent more than half of his life behind bars in the United States.
Following a childhood in a refugee camp, he resettled in a violent, impoverished California neighborhood. At 17, he got into a knife fight with a group of other boys and, despite his youth, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 28 years for attempted murder. Over two decades at San Quentin State Prison, Pham worked hard to turn his life around, obtaining a college degree and becoming a mentor in anti-violence programs.
Last August, a parole board declared that Pham, 37, posed no threat to public safety and granted him reprieve. But instead of releasing him to his family, the state transferred Pham to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, where he remained for the next six months.
On the evening of March 15, the agency deported Pham and 32 other Vietnamese immigrants and refugees to a country they had not known since they were children. That afternoon, he left a note for an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus who had campaigned for his release for many years.
“I feel very blessed to have yours and community’s support,” Pham wrote. “I’m so grateful for all of you and that you have given me much hope, strength and inspiration.”
The newest wave of deportations left many Southeast Asian Americans grieving and angry. More than 100 people participated in a protest this month in the Southern California city of Westminster, the heart of a Vietnamese enclave known as Little Saigon. A coalition of Vietnamese and Asian American groups released a statement pushing President Joe Biden to uphold his campaign promise of undoing the damage from Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies.
“This is a tragedy our community has to endure every single year,” Quyen Dinh, the executive director of the national civil rights organization Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (Searac), told NBC Asian America. “We’re heartbroken and disappointed by what hasn’t changed under Biden.”
In addition to a blanket ban on deportations, advocates are calling on Biden to enact sweeping policy reforms to decriminalize immigration and pave the way for deportees to return to the U.S. and reunite with their families.
Deportations of Southeast Asian Americans surged under the Trump administration. In 2020, ICE removed 93 Vietnamese nationals — up from 80 the year before. Last February, Laotian and Hmong refugees braced for a deportation wave after the U.S. government approved funding for a reintegration program to help Laos take in nationals facing final orders of removal. More than 15,000 Southeast Asians face such orders, 80 percent of which are linked to underlying criminal convictions they received as youths, according to Searac.
Trump also renegotiated a 2008 agreement with Vietnam that had protected war refugees like Pham, who arrived in the U.S. before 1995, from deportation. Despite pleas from immigrant rights activists, Biden hasn’t pledged to review and uphold the pact.
For many community members, the Biden administration's inaction and opaque stance on immigration has been a source of frustration and anxiety.
“There’s no transparency under Biden,” said Hien Nguyen, a program coordinator at the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, a group that provides direct support to Asian and Pacific Islander prisoners like Pham and works to dismantle the prison-to-deportation pipeline. “We don’t know who’s a target. Anyone with a prior record could be a target.”
Nguyen noted that many Southeast Asians, who form the largest refugee group in the U.S., came to the country as war babies and resettled in high-crime, under-resourced neighborhoods with little help from the government. Today, nearly half of the population are low-income, and a quarter live in poverty.
“There was no comprehensive program to allow us to succeed, to heal from the trauma of war, refugee camp and resettlement,” she said.
(The Asian Prisoner Support Committee recently started a re-entry fund for Pham, who was recently released from a centralized government facility in Vietnam.)
A month before the 2020 election, Biden published an op-ed in a leading Vietnamese paper about how proud he was to have voted for more funding to help resettle Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. In light of the recent deportations, organizers criticized the move as opportunistic and hypocritical.
“It was his attempt to prove to us he would support refugees, and he failed,” said Tracy La, the executive director of VietRISE, a California-based progressive group.
La, along with many other advocates, said deportations should be considered an anti-Asian hate crime, which has spiked during the pandemic and reached a crisis point last week when six women of Asian descent were shot and killed in Atlanta-area spas (a 21-year-old white man has been charged in the shootings).
“How can it not be an act of violence to tear families apart?” La said of the deportations. “How can it not be a form of violence to kick people out of their communities and send them thousands of miles away?”
In January, Congress introduced an immigration reform bill, the New Way Forward Act, that could provide an avenue for many Southeast Asian deportees to return to the U.S. In recent years, changes to immigration laws have brought back four formerly incarcerated Cambodian refugees.
Supporting the proposal, advocates say, is an important step for Biden to take to protect Southeast Asian refugees. Another is repealing a 1996 immigration bill — the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act — that expanded which crimes made foreign nationals eligible for deportation. Since its passage, annual removals of Southeast Asian Americans have increased under every administration.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has really shone a light on how violence is being perpetuated against Asian Americans,” said Dinh, of Searac. “Deportation is an example of state violence that’s been perpetuated for over two decades.”
In Southeast Asian communities, forced separations have inflicted profound emotional, psychological and financial turmoil on the spouses and children whom deportees leave behind, according to a 2018 report from Searac and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.
“What has really been stripped away from the immigration conversation,” Dinh said, “is the humanity of our communities and the individuals who have been impacted under these policies.”