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.

My cousin came to this country in 1975, one of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the United States as a result of the Vietnam War, despite strong public opposition. “To ignore the refugees in their hour of need would be to repudiate the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants,” said President Ford, who’d fought to bring them here. “I was not about to let Congress do that.” 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 be slim.

When the communists took over Vietnam in 1975, millions of people were desperate to flee the country. This was certainly true for my uncles, who had served in the South Vietnamese military alongside U.S. troops. They would have faced certain torture and possible death had they stayed. Like today’s refugees, they would undertake any means possible to avoid persecution and to protect their families.

This is precisely what Tony’s father did. Tony was two years old at the time his parents emigrated. Had his family remained in Vietnam, he would likely have watched his father ripped away and possibly killed, seen his family’s livelihood destroyed, and grown up in poverty. But Tony was lucky. My mother had a devoted friend named Jerry Edwards, who us kids always called Mr. Edwards. He was an official in the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam with the Defense Attaché’s Office, according to correspondence with my family.

On April 19, 1975, 11 days before the fall of South Vietnam, Mr. Edwards wrote a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” vouching for the integrity of Tony’s father. It begins, “This letter is to introduce my brother-in-law Captain Pham…” and it goes on to say, “He is a very sincere, loyal, and dedicated individual. Whatever aid and comfort you can provide him and his family would be greatly appreciated.”

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.”

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. He was not Capt. Pham’s legal brother-in-law at the time he wrote the letter for Tony’s father. His divorce from his first wife was not final until 1978 — three years after he wrote the letter. And though he would go on to live with my mother, brother, and me after we moved to Virginia, Mr. Edwards and my mother never married.

My cousin claimed in an email to ICE attorneys that he had followed the “lawful path to citizenship” while also touting this “document to freedom,” a document based on a lie. This misrepresentation of his family history underscores the hypocrisy of his claim and the shortcomings of a deeply flawed immigration system.

Mr. Edwards passed away in 1988, so he never got to see Tony’s rise to power in the Trump administration. He stepped into the void left by my parents’ divorce and was a father figure to me. He took me to church on Sundays, read fairy tales to me every night before I went to bed, and picked me up from school whenever I stayed late for extracurricular activities. He helped me study for my elementary school’s spelling bee championship, which I won, and he helped me with a school project called Olympics of the Mind when my teammates failed to show up. Most importantly, he taught me to be kind, generous, and compassionate. I haven’t always lived up to his expectations, but I have tried.

I am grateful to him for risking his job and his professional reputation on behalf of our family. I admire him for putting people above laws. I understand why he stretched the truth when he helped save my relatives. His courage shows the hollow protestations of many conservative immigrants like my cousin who say they “did it the right way” when they came to America, while those seeking refuge here today are shameful and inferior.

I know to the core of my being that Mr. Edwards would not approve of my cousin’s hypocrisy and certainly would not have approved of his aggressive deportation tactics. Mr. Edwards embodied empathy and grace in everything he did. He never could have supported policies that veer toward infringing on human rights.

My cousin and I have never spoken of any of this. I don’t remember the last time I saw him. When he ran for public office five years ago in our hometown of Richmond, Virginia, I declined to attend a fundraiser for him in a predominantly Vietnamese suburb of Washington, D.C., and I chose not to donate money to the campaign of someone whose views countered my own.

After I heard about his appointment to ICE, I emailed him twice asking to have a conversation. I wanted to understand how he came to have views so opposite my own, even though we are family and grew up in the same small Southern city, attended the same high school and similar colleges, and graduated from the same law school. I wanted to understand how he makes sense of the fundamental paradox between his own refugee story and the way he treats those seeking refuge today.

I never heard back from him.

My cousin entered the United States with his family when he was a toddler through a refugee processing center at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. They moved to Richmond, Virginia, after Commonwealth Catholic Charities sponsored them. His parents struggled to learn English and to make ends meet as they worked two and three jobs each. Eventually, they purchased their own home in a solid middle-class neighborhood. One daughter became a doctor and their son became a lawyer who ascended into a presidential administration. They worked hard and were rewarded for their efforts. They lived and achieved the American dream.

Like my cousin, I was born outside the United States, though in the Philippines, where my parents were living for my dad’s job, rather than in Vietnam. Unlike my cousin, my father was a U.S. citizen — a blond, blue-eyed Californian who’d met my mom when they were both living in Vietnam — which conferred U.S. citizenship on me at birth. My first language was English. Even when people would ask me where I was really from, I always knew I was American by birthright. I have always felt proud of that fact, even when I was called “Chink” and told to “go back to where you came from!” I know my cousin heard those things, too, in the city where we grew up.

My Asian face never resembled the ones I saw on American television or the ones that surrounded me in the Southern suburb I called home. I used to hold up my eyelids and pinch the bridge of my nose for extended periods in unsuccessful attempts at looking more American. But apart from my facial features, nothing else about me could be considered Asian. I spoke unaccented American English. My clothing style tended toward surfer girl chic. As a child, I spent my free time reading Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, and everything written by Judy Blume. Afternoons were filled with reruns of the Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and the “Afterschool Specials” that taught me how to be an American kid. I have always felt American even when I was labeled otherwise and even as I struggled to prove my American-ness.

Nonetheless, many people see my Asian face and think I am not a real American, that I am a guest in their land and must follow different rules. I have felt I had to be better than average to be considered average. My cousin must have felt this same pressure to prove he was a good immigrant — to prove he deserved to be here.

On ICE’s website, Tony includes a quote alongside his biography: “I owe a debt for my freedoms and opportunities which must be repaid.” He chooses to repay his debt by helping to shut people out and deporting them. It makes me wonder if deporting other immigrants, even those protected by our laws, makes him feel more American. When my cousin was serving as principal legal adviser at ICE before he became the director, 30 Vietnamese immigrants were deported despite an agreement between the United States and Vietnam that prevented Vietnamese immigrants who resettled in the U.S. before July 1995 from being deported. How many steps away are we from deporting citizens like my cousin’s family under an administration hell-bent on ridding our country of immigrants?

Regardless, Trump has strong support among Vietnamese Americans, because they believe he is standing up to China and communism. I’ve heard this from more than one of my cousins. I understand where they’re coming from, but I cannot understand how such abstract concerns can supersede human compassion.

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.

I recognize deportations are not new, and that Obama has been called the “deporter-in-chief” by immigration activists. The system should have been fixed long before Trump took office. However, it is the current president who has crippled the system beyond measure. The Trump administration has willfully mismanaged USCIS, for instance, resulting in as many as 300,000 immigrants being kept from being naturalized in time to vote this week, including many refugees. The administration separated children from their parents as a deterrent and is unable to locate the parents of 545 of those children. The administration continues every possible means to end DACA for over 1.3 million people, despite the majority of Americans supporting a path to citizenship for them.

I hope my cousin will be able to bring a level of compassion to his position. At the beginning of his tenure, he said, “I hope it lends credibility when I say that [my refugee] experience will allow me to engage in thoughtful and meaningful deliberations when I make decisions that impact the direction of this organization.”

I no longer feel that I have to prove I am a good American. I am simply American. I don’t take for granted the opportunities and rights that the accident of my birth has afforded me, including the right to criticize my government and to take a stand against injustice. It’s why I am committed to standing against the injustices committed by ICE and the American immigration system. And why I am so disheartened to see my cousin perpetuate those injustices.

But I do wish he would talk with me about our family’s history — and his own history. I am deeply committed to solving our country’s problems in partnership with my fellow Americans from across the political spectrum. This includes my cousin Tony. A healthy democracy depends on the give and take of respectful debate between citizens who hold opposing views like my cousin and me. When we face our differences instead of hiding behind our political identities, we move one step closer to creating the America we all want this country to be: a place of equality, liberty, and freedom for all.

Creating space for conversations to transform society. Exploring what it means to be American. Recovering lawyer, public speaker, art fanatic philippahughes.com

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