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ICE’s Controversial Leader Plans To Resign After Five Months On The Job

Tony Pham, a refugee from Vietnam, oversaw an effort to plaster billboards with the faces of immigrants along highways in Pennsylvania.

Posted on December 10, 2020, at 7:57 p.m. ET

Mark Avery / Associated Press

The acting leader of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who oversaw an effort to plaster billboards with the faces of immigrants along highways in Pennsylvania, plans to resign at the end of the year.

Tony Pham, a refugee from Vietnam, has been leading the agency since late August.

Under the Trump administration, ICE has seen multiple leaders come and go, including the current acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Mark Morgan, but none of them have ever been confirmed by the Senate.

“I am grateful for the Trump Administration for providing me the single highest honor of my career in serving my adopted country as both the Principal Legal Advisor and the Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Pham said in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News. “Leading a law enforcement agency with such a committed workforce has been the honor of a lifetime. I have gotten to meet with many extraordinary employees across the United States. I will continue to be that tireless advocate for the hard working men and women at ICE. However, at the end of the year, I will be returning home to Richmond, VA to be closer to my family.”

Pham, who continued that trend in running the agency as the “senior official performing the duties of the director,” has had a short, controversial tenure.

During Pham's time as leader, ICE installed bold black-and-red billboards along highways across the key swing state of Pennsylvania, depicting the faces of “at-large immigration violators who may pose a public safety threat,” as the agency put it. Current and former ICE officials, along with legal experts, called the move politically motivated.

Pham and other DHS officials also came under fire after holding news conferences in swing states to announce the results of other regional operations before the presidential election. After Nov. 2, ICE continued the media blitz, announcing that more than 150 immigrants across the United States were arrested as part of an operation targeting those who had allegedly promised to leave but did not.

Pham also led an agency that struggled to contain COVID-19 outbreaks within detention centers holding immigrants. Several ICE detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 have died in government custody this year.

In October, ICE officials also began implementing a policy that allows officers to arrest and rapidly deport undocumented immigrants who have been in the US for less than two years. Pham said officers and agents needed to finish a training course by Oct. 16, after which they could begin using their new authority.

Pham, who had been leading the agency’s prosecutors since earlier this year, came to the US as a young boy in 1975. Ten years later, according to an email he sent to ICE attorneys when he first started, he and his family became US citizens.

Pham also emphasized that his family had followed the “lawful path to citizenship.” The Trump administration has gutted the refugee program, cutting the number of refugees allowed to come to the US this year to 18,000, down from the target of 110,000 during the end of the Obama administration.

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