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Deported by Biden: Vietnamese refugee separated from his family decades later in the United States | American immigration

Passengers on Tien Pham’s March 15 flight were frightened and worried. Some were mad or denied. Many seemed lost.

In the months leading up to his deportation, Pham, a 38-year-old California resident, had hoped to stay in the country his family had called home from the age of 13. But when he saw 30 other Vietnamese Americans flying with him from Texas to Vietnam that day, he knew it was over.

“I tried to accept it. I just told myself to look ahead, not look back, “Pham recalled three weeks later from her cousin’s apartment in Ho Chi Minh City.

Pham is one of thousands of people deported by the Joe Biden administration.

Biden has pledged to cancel Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant program and deportation machine, and has issued some initial enforcement orders that refrain from U.S. immigration and customs enforcement (LED). But in his first 100 days, he also upheld a controversial Trump-era rule to immediately expel most people captured at the border, and said he would keep the historically low refugee limit before moving to raise it after a public protest. His deportation policies, focused on people seen as a “threat” to society, continue to overwhelm refugees with old criminal records such as Pham, even after their home countries have decided they do not pose a threat to public safety.

Childhood experience of violence

Pham’s memories of Vietnam are largely violent. Born in 1983, he grew up after the Vietnam War. His father served in the South Vietnamese army with the United States and was eventually imprisoned in a re-education camp, where he was forced to work and eat rodents to survive.

His family, who hails from North Vietnam, stayed in Ho Chi Minh City, and his parents warned him to stay home as much as possible: “Every time I went out or went to school, I was a target,” Pham said. “The environment was very cruel and corrupt.” At the age of 12, he said he was severely beaten and robbed.

Pham was relieved when his family came to California in 1996 as refugees, moving into a low-income housing project in San Jose. But he struggled with English and fell behind in class, even though he did well in school in Vietnam: “I was embarrassed and humiliated,” he recalled.

Tien Pham and his parents in Ho Chi Minh City before moving to the United States.
Tien Pham and his parents in Ho Chi Minh City before moving to the United States. Photo: Courtesy of Tien Pham

Faced with harassment and violence at his school and neighborhood, he joined local street gangs who offered him protection, a common story about Southeast Asian refugees growing up in poverty in California.

His parents worked long hours in low-paid jobs to stay afloat and were often unaware of his struggles involving drinking at a young age. In 2000, at the age of 17, Pham quarreled with other young men and he and a friend were accused of stabbing and injuring someone. Pham was arrested, persecuted as an adult and convicted of attempted murder. He was given 28 years under strict sentencing laws.

“He looked really young then,” recalls Chanton Boone, a Cambodian refugee who was imprisoned in the same prison 20 years ago and became Pham’s big brother. “He was scared. I showed him how to navigate in prison, how to be safe. “

Boone and Pham motivated themselves to stay productive over the years and opened their parallel childhoods. “We spent a lot of time figuring out our trauma,” Boone said. The duo often joke to make prison more bearable, Boone said. “We grew up together in prison.”

Pham received numerous degrees and certifications, helped teach an ethnic studies program, and worked for a newspaper run by prisoners.

Pam received parole last June following the enactment of new laws recognizing the harm of long sentences for children. Many municipal groups pledged to support his re-entry, he received strong recommendations from prison staff, and the governor approved his release.

On the morning of August 31, the day of his release, Pham’s family awaited him in front of San Quentin Prison north of San Francisco, ready to take him home for the first time in two decades. But Pham never came.

“We thought we would all rejoin our family table for dinner,” Tu Pam, Tien’s 74-year-old father, said in an email in Vietnamese translated by his daughter. “We have always believed that America is a land of hope … Things were encouraging until the day we waited for Tien at the gates of freedom, just to see him nowhere.”

“We thought America was the land of hope.”

Pham was one of about 1,400 people whose transfer from the California prison system was transferred directly to ice agents at the end of their sentences last year. Gavin Newsum, the governor of the Democratic Party, has come under tight scrutiny for this policy of voluntarily handing over foreign-born state prisoners to Led for deportation, which defenders say is a form of double punishment.

Pham also had to be released at a time when San Quentin was battling a catastrophic Covid-19 outbreak, and he and his family hoped the prison would let him go home instead of risking spreading Covid to ice custody. They were also optimistic because Boone, also a refugee, was released from San Quentin two months before Pham and was not transferred to Ice.

Tien Pham is one of 1,400 people whose prison system in California was transferred directly to ice agents at the end of their sentences last year.
Tien Pham is one of 1,400 people whose prison system in California was transferred directly to ice agents at the end of their sentences last year. Photo: Courtesy of Tien Pham

The two planned to eat a Korean barbecue, visit the beach and go fishing after they were both free. But on the date of Pham’s release, a van arrived at the prison, which he quickly recognized as an ice vehicle.

Pham thought of the stories he had heard of people detained for years in ice detention as they struggled with their cases: “I didn’t want to spend more time locked up and not knowing how long I would be there, it weighed heavily. me.”

Once in Led’s custody, Pham’s green card was revoked. Over the next six months, Ice sent him through the United States, to Colorado, back to California, then to Arizona, Louisiana, and Texas.

In February, under the new administration, Pham’s lawyer requested a humanitarian release, but Ice responded flatly. Despite a public campaign to stop the deportation of Pham and other Vietnamese refugees, he was deported in March.

Thousands deported to Biden

In February and March, the first two months of Biden’s rule, Ice deported more than 6,000 people, according to data provided by the agency. This marks a sharp decline in the Trump administration, which deports approximately twice as many people a month and prosecutes removals against anyone in the country without permission.

Biden had originally announced a 100-day deportation break, but the policy made exceptions for people considered a “threat” to national security. Eventually, a judge blocked the moratorium weeks after it was introduced.

“Ice’s intermediate priorities for implementation are focused on threats to national security, border security and public safety,” a spokesman said in an email.

But those priorities still cover vulnerable immigrant communities, including refugees who have been criminalized as children under outdated strict crime laws backed by then-Senator Biden. Some asylum seekers have also been sent back to regions facing severe violence, defenders say.

The Asian Legal Council (ALC) and other California groups are fighting for Gabi Solano, a domestic violence survivor who spent 22 years in prison and whom the Biden administration is trying to deport to Mexico. ALC activists said they were particularly disappointed that Biden deported large groups of Asian refugees the same week he condemned anti-Asian violence.

Lawyers also argue that criminal convictions should not be an excuse for deportation. “They define deportation policy as a public safety policy – that they deport people who are ‘immediately in danger,'” said Anup Prasad, an attorney for ALC staff representing Pham. “But we see that this is not true. California released the people on parole, explicitly stating that they posed no danger … and then still handing them over to Ice to be deported. “

During his flight to Vietnam, Pham tried to comfort people around him, including some who he said barely spoke Vietnamese and had lived in the United States for decades. Some were recently taken from Ice and appeared with a negative: “They were really lost … They have families and companies and properties leaving.”

However, he and others were relieved to be released from Led’s custody, where he said they had not been given the opportunity to be vaccinated and had recently encountered another detainee infected with Covid.

“I just want to hug my parents.”

Pham may never be able to come to the United States. His deportation order is actually a life ban, Prasad said, unless the governor of California pardons him.

Lawyers, meanwhile, are campaigning for a proposed California law that would end transfers from Ice Prisons and save people from deportation – and called on Biden to exercise his judgment and not deport people based on convictions.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Pham said it was astonishing to adapt to being free for the first time since he was a teenager, while being exiled thousands of miles from his family. He was able to visit some relatives in Vietnam, but said Ho Chi Minh felt largely unknown. However, he recognized the corner where he had been attacked as a 12-year-old.

Pham may continue to teach English, but for now he is still getting used to the technology he has never used behind bars.

Pham’s family hopes to travel to Vietnam, but his father recently became ill.

“I pray that Covid’s restrictions will end every day and that I will be strong enough to overcome my ill health in order to hope to see Tien again,” his father told the Guardian. For now, he added: “We continue to see Tien on screen.”

Pham said it’s hard to think that reuniting his family in California will never happen.

“I’ve imagined it so many times … I’ve always felt that America is my home. My family, my relatives, my friends, they are all there, “he said, adding,” I just wanted to hug my parents and tell them, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m home.’ “

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