Tony Pham is a lawyer who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam who is now the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under President Donald Trump’s administration. He is the fifth person to hold the title — senior official performing the duties of the director — since Trump took office. Pham’s appointment was announced on August 25 by the Washington Examiner.
Pham, 47, had been serving as the organization’s principal legal advisor. He replaces Matthew Albence, who announced his retirement at the end of July.
According to Axios, acting Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said in an email to DHS staff about Pham’s appointment, “As Tony has been a trailblazer in the field of law and corrections, I am confident he will successfully lead the men and women of ICE in their mission to keep our borders safe and protect Americans.”
Here’s what you need to know about Tony Pham:
1. Pham & His Family Came to America as Refugees in 1975 When He Was 2 & He Became a Citizen in 1985
Pham, his mother and his two sisters boarded a flight out of Saigon in 1975, when Pham was 2. In a 2018 feature in the Virginia Gazette, Pham detailed his family’s journey through Guam to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
“God, we were a ragtag family,” he told The Gazette. “There were a lot of us, but we made it. Miraculously, after about 90 days, my father was able to find us.”
The family eventually relocated to a subsidized apartment in Virginia, where times were tough. Pham told the Gazette that his parents each worked multiple jobs, yet they were still subsisting on a bowl of rice and an egg per day.
“Times were difficult,” Pham wrote in a 2018 op-ed in The Bearing Drift. “I remember waking up one night to use the bathroom. There was my father on the side of the tub, with his face buried in his hands, silently weeping from the frustrations of life.”
Pham and his family learned English and were awarded U.S. citizenship in May 1985. In a May 2014 op-ed he wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Pham called becoming an American citizen “the single most important and significant impact in my life.”
“Without (citizenship), we were a Phamily with no home and no country to call our own,” he wrote. “Gaining something significant that so many others are born with made us appreciate the value of our freedoms and opportunity. … We were no longer strangers on the outside looking in.”
In an interview with the Washington Times following his promotion to the head of ICE, Pham said his experiences as a refugee give him valuable perspective.
“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 this organization,” he said.
2. Pham Has Spent Most of His Career Working as a Lawyer, Including as a Prosecutor
Pham’s recent role as ICE’s top lawyer was just one stop on his journey practicing law. Pham graduated from the College of William & Mary in 1995 then went on to graduate law school at the University of Richmond School of Law in 1999, according to his bio on ICE’s website.
After a stint as a judicial clerk for the Circuit Court of Henrico County in Virginia, he joined the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor, where he worked on “complex” homicide, narcotics and firearms cases. Pham also managed drug trafficking and illegal weapons cases as a special assistant U.S. attorney. In 2006, he created Richmond’s first-ever gang prosecution program, according to the bio.
After eight years as a prosecutor, Pham shifted his legal skills to the defensive side, supporting the city of Richmond and its police force in civil rights cases. Pham continued his legal defense of law enforcement when, in 2010, he became in-house counsel for Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr.
According to The Yappie, a newsletter focused on reporting Asian American news and activism, Pham was the first Asian American attorney to serve on the Virginia State Bar’s Disciplinary Board, and he sat on the state’s Asian American Advisory Board, served as president of Virginia’s chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and was recognized for his leadership in criminal law in the Asian American community.
3. Pham Ran for Public Office Twice & Lost Both Times
According to a 2013 article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Pham was among eight early candidates for a vacant seat on the Henrico County School Board. Election records show he was not on the final ballot.
In 2015, Pham again ran for public office, this time for commonwealth’s attorney of Henrico County. He edged out two opponents in the Republican primary in June 2015, then lost in the general election that November, according to the Times-Dispatch.
During his campaign, Pham was among the 32 million users named in a hack of dating site Ashley Madison. Pham confirmed to Richmond’s CBS affiliate, WTVR, that he had created an Ashley Madison account seven years earlier. “He said it was a terrible decision, and said he immediately told his wife about it, and that they worked through it,” the TV station reported.
In an April 2018 op-ed for Bearing Drift, which calls itself “Virginia’s premiere conservative web site,” Pham called the 2015 campaign “brutal.”
“Afterwards, I promised my family that I would do everything reasonable to shy away from public life,” Pham said. “I promised them that I would guard and cherish their privacy after having thrust them into the public eye in a countywide campaign.”
4. Pham Ran a Jail in Virginia
Between his brief foray into local politics and starting his tenure at ICE, Pham was superintendent of the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail (VPRJ), where he was responsible for a $13 million budget, more than 100 full-time employees and more than 300 offenders.
Local news reports laud Pham for various programs put into place under his watch, including an addiction recovery program for offenders who struggle with substance abuse; an ankle monitor program to give certain offenders opportunities to visit home, work and health care facilities outside the jail; and the introduction of tablets to allow offenders to make video calls home and more easily file complaints with jail management, The Virginia Gazette reported.
Some of Pham’s other initiatives were prompted by legal troubles. Three former inmates filed a civil case against VPRJ in April 2019, after former VPRJ guard Henry Thomas Rhim was “convicted of sexual battery and carnal knowledge of two inmates,” according to the Daily Press. Rhim’s crimes occurred under Pham’s predecessor, and Pham instituted reforms, including additional training for correctional officers, a daily review of policies and new rules to further segregate the jail’s male and female offenders and officers. He also created an internal investigations unit — three men tasked with “aggressively” reviewing all allegations of misconduct.
Jerry Denton III, a lawyer for one of the women suing the jail, told the Daily Press that he’s seen a pattern at VPRJ.
“It’s a prevalent problem is what I’m trying to say, this is not a freak occurrence,” Denton said. “This place has a long history of these sort of things.”
Denton also represented former VPRJ inmate Shawn M. Stokes in a federal lawsuit against the jail. Stokes sued the jail for assault and battery and for violating his constitutional rights, saying a corrections officer broke his finger and jail authorities refused to give him medical treatment until months later. That case was ultimately dismissed.
Pham resigned his position at the jail in December 2019, telling the Daily Press he was grateful for the opportunity but wanted to spend more time with his family.
5. Pham’s ICE Promotion Has Prompted Protests
— oliver merino (@olivermerino4) September 8, 2020
In the week’s following the announcement of Pham’s promotion, more than two dozen organizations representing America’s refugee communities have banded together to host a press conference, issue a joint statement and stage demonstrations at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., and at Pham’s home in Virginia.
In a press conference held on Facebook on September 8, activists accused the Trump administration of using Pham as a “puppet” to disguise the administration’s “nativist, white supremacist agenda” and four years of “deliberate dismantling of refugee protections.” Many of the speakers addressed their comments directly to Pham.
“We want to send a very clear message to Tony Pham that his background as a refugee is not as relevant as his background excusing, justifying, enabling the violations of human rights committed by ICE to our refugee communities the world over,” said Salvador Sarmiento, national campaign director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Tracy La, executive director of VietRISE, emphasized that Pham has “built an entire career off criminalizing and incarcerating migrants.”
After the press conference, a group of activists gathered at ICE headquarters to deliver a copy of the joint statement to Pham. They weren’t admitted to the building, and nobody from ICE came down to meet with them, so the statement was ultimately slipped under a door.
Speaking outside the building, Cat Bao Le, executive director of SEAC Village, said the strategy of using “people that appear like they come from the community” is a well-known tactic of police, ICE and other agencies.
“Tony Pham is not our family, and he does not represent us,” she said. “We will not let this administration use Vietnamese refugees as a wedge to further divide us from our siblings. We know better, we’re smarter than that, we’re offended that you think we’re stupid and we will continue to speak up against you.”
Phi Nguyen, the litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, told NBC said Trump’s track record thus far doesn’t inspire confidence that Pham will turn the tide.
“Given that (Pham has) already worked for ICE within this administration, and this administration has aggressively ramped up targeting of Southeast Asian refugee communities, we don’t feel optimistic that there will be a change in how ICE is run,” Nguyen said.
An unnamed senior Homeland Security official told CNN that Pham is “very much aligned with the current administration.”
The official continued: “Albence will certainly be missed.”