Illustration: Lucy Jones

My Cousin Runs ICE. He’s Killing the Same American Dream Granted to His Own Parents.

The lie at the heart of the Pham family ‘pass to freedom’

In August, my mother forwarded me an email. “Trump administration taps Vietnam refugee as new ICE chief,” it said. I opened it, and learned that my cousin, Tony Pham, had just been appointed to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Tony’s ascent to this position instilled great pride in my family, especially among the older members who skew politically conservative. I, however, was appalled that my cousin allowed his identity as a refugee to be used as cover for the enforcement of increasingly cruel and dehumanizing immigration policies. And I questioned my cousin’s claim that he had followed the “lawful path to citizenship,” which doesn’t give a full picture of what really happened.

Mr. Edwards understood very well the significance of his actions. Acting on his deeply held beliefs to save our family, he lied in this letter.

Mr. Edwards gave my uncle the letter to carry as a backup in case anyone questioned the validity of the hastily secured documents that facilitated his journey to America, documents my mother had courageously obtained for him through her connections. Over the years I’ve heard different family stories about the role Mr. Edwards’ letter played in Tony’s father’s escape, including that he never needed to use the letter at all, but was prepared to, in the event my uncle ran into trouble during the journey. What’s not in question is that over the years it has become part of the family’s public lore, and to this day, Tony says he carries that tattered letter in his wallet. He calls it his family’s “document to freedom.” In a recent interview with Fox, Tony asserted that the letter played a crucial role in securing his mother’s escape, stating that “based on that letter she was able to get a seat on the flight out of Saigon that day on April 19.” And in a 2014 Facebook post, he wrote, “I hope Mr. Edwards understood the significance of his action of signing our pass to freedom. Without it, our lives would have been dramatically different.”

I hope my cousin will be able to bring a level of compassion to his position.

Like most Americans, I do not understand the intricacies of U.S. immigration law. Also like most Americans, I have opinions about immigration law based on my values and conscience: I believe our country should dedicate fewer resources toward enforcement, like ICE, and more toward reforming an immigration system that people from across the political spectrum agree is broken. When undocumented people who have paid taxes in the United States for years, and who have U.S.-born children, live in fear of deportation, when many immigrants wait in line for decades to attain their green cards, and when refugees seeking safe haven from clear and present danger are denied asylum, I question whether our country remembers it was built by immigrants and thrives on their economic and cultural power.

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