The Trump administration has selected Tony Pham, a refugee from Vietnam who went on to oversee a jail in Virginia, to run Immigration and Customs Enforcement, officials confirmed Tuesday.
Pham takes over for Matt Albence, a career official who supported President Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Trump has often cited his support for ICE and his efforts to restrict immigration in campaign rallies.
“As a seasoned leader with DHS, Tony will ensure ICE continues to safeguard our country’s borders from crime and illegal immigration,” an ICE spokesperson said. The Washington Examiner first reported the news on Tuesday.
Under the Trump administration, ICE has seen multiple leaders come and go, including Albence, current acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan, and others, as its profile was raised due to controversial operations and policies. Albence, like many in the Department of Homeland Security, was leading the agency in an acting capacity. Pham will continue that by becoming the latest “senior official performing the duties of the director.”
Pham, who has 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, Pham and his family became US citizens. He also emphasized 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 country this year to 18,000, down from the target of 110,000 during the end of the Obama administration.
The new acting ICE director was previously a prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia. Up until his decision to join the agency, he had overseen the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail, where, according to local media, he tried to institute reforms. He told ICE attorneys earlier this year that he had a “prosecutor’s mindset.”
Pham takes over during a period in which the agency has seen a major drop in the number of immigrants in its custody. Last fall, there were more than 55,000 people in ICE custody per day. As of Aug. 1, that number had dropped to about 21,500 per day.
ICE officials have also been criticized for their handling of COVID-19 within immigrant detention centers.
Medical experts and immigrant advocates have warned that the highly contagious disease puts everyone in detention at risk. They’ve pointed out that detention centers have a lack of necessary space to accommodate proper social distancing guidelines. ICE has countered that the agency has ramped up testing and released many detainees who are medically vulnerable. As of late July, nearly 1,000 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19 and almost 4,000 had gotten the disease in custody.
The total number of ICE deaths so far this fiscal year is the highest total since 2006, when 19 immigrants died, according to ICE records.
Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News reported that since the end of March through the beginning of July, guards at detention centers holding immigrants across the country deployed force — pepper spray, pepper balls, pepper spray grenades — in incidents involving more than 10 immigrants at a time on a dozen occasions.
In total, more than 600 detainees have been subjected to these group uses of force.