Phi “Tommy” Pham is currently facing deportation to Vietnam, a country he has no ties to. Pham is a refugee and incarcerated firefighter. His story is ours, too.
In 2020, after serving as firefighters in the worst fire season in California history, we were handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While we were recently pardoned, the state prison system continues to detain and deport people like Pham — and like us.
As the second largest fire in state history rages on, we know that this year’s fire season will be even more destructive than the last. Pham should be home preparing to protect our communities. Instead, he’s now detained in Aurora, Colorado, and facing permanent family separation.
Like Pham, our families fled the wars in Southeast Asia before arriving in the United States. We survived refugee camps and resettled in impoverished neighborhoods in California. We struggled to make ends meet. Our families didn’t speak English, and we were frequently bullied in school for being Asian and poor. We understand why Pham turned to harmful activity. After experiencing years of trauma, we only understood survival.
Like many others in prison, our entire lives were changed by a mistake we made as youth. Pham was just 20 when a verbal argument turned into a physical altercation. Feeling scared and outnumbered, Pham drew his gun and shot in the direction of a group, hitting one person. Everyone thankfully survived, but Pham pled to assault and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In prison, Pham confronted the harm he did to his community and decided to make amends. He took anger management classes, joined support groups and completed his college degree. In 2018, Pham saw news of the devastating wildfires in Paradise, California, and decided to volunteer as a firefighter to protect the people of his home state. After months of rigorous training, he became a star firefighter at Folsom State Prison Fire Department, responding to countless life-threatening emergencies in and out of prison.
On June 16, 2021, Pham became eligible for parole. After his years of hard work, transformation and healing, he should have been able to return home to his family. But instead, upon his release, California’s state prison system directly transferred him into ICE custody.
In 2020, we were in exactly Pham’s position. We had both turned our lives around in prison and served on the front lines of wildfire season, risking our lives for California communities. Because of our refugee status and California’s collaboration with ICE, we were also immediately detained after paroling. Our own transformation and contributions to defending California were overlooked.
Being detained was as terrifying as entering prison for the first time. We had already earned our freedom but were doubly punished for no reason other than that we were born outside of this country. We and our families were terrified. Locked up, we had spent years waiting for the day we could finally embrace our siblings and care for our aging parents — only to be severed from them and potentially deported to countries we never called home.
We were incredibly grateful that this past May, Gov. Gavin Newsom pardoned us both so that we could reunite with our loved ones. But Pham is still in ICE detention, over 1,200 miles from his mother and siblings in Hayward, California.
No family deserves to be ripped apart by deportation. That’s why we’re asking our state senators and Governor Newsom to pass A.B. 937, the VISION Act, which would protect people like us, who have served their sentences, from being transferred from jails and prisons directly into ICE custody.
We also urge Governor Newsom to immediately pardon Pham. In detention, Pham is suffering from lung damage and vision problems, while ICE refuses to let him seek treatment. We ask that the governor recognize Pham’s contributions to society and make sure that he comes home to the care of his family.
In the next few months, California will be devastated by unprecedented wildfires, exacerbated by extreme drought and the climate crisis. The governor must take decisive action by protecting the immigrants and incarcerated firefighters who serve our communities. If our elected officials pardon Phi Pham and sign the VISION Act, they’ll help build a safer, more compassionate society where all families, including families like ours, can thrive.