Fear of the Unknown: How ICE transfers impact the health of immigrants and their families

By Christine Mitchell, Lien Pham, and Narissa Pham

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Tien Pham (second from left) with his family, at his high school graduation in Santa Clara Juvenile Hall

On August 31st, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom transferred Tien Pham from San Quentin State Prison in California to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at a detention center in Colorado. Tien is a Vietnamese refugee who was charged as an adult at the age of 17, and was recently found suitable for parole after 2 decades of incarceration. But because of direct ICE transfers — a practice where jails and prisons transfer people directly to ICE custody for detention and deportation upon release — he is now separated from his family by thousands of miles, which has negative impacts on both Tien’s health, and that of his loved ones.

Over the last several months, Human Impact Partners (HIP) collaborated with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus to conduct research on the health impacts of direct transfers from prisons and jails to ICE. Our research, presented in a new toolkit, reveals that Tien’s story is all too common for immigrants and refugees in California and across the country, and has wide-ranging impacts on public health.

Incarceration has always been harmful to health, resulting in higher rates of chronic disease, infectious disease, and poor mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these negative health impacts more clear. Direct transfers to ICE detention centers add yet another layer of harm to the already-violent US carceral system, further increase the risk of spreading infectious diseases like COVID-19, and keep people behind bars longer, which is correlated with diminished health. Ending this practice would have immediate benefits for public health: releasing someone into the care of their families and communities with no supervision conditions is correlated with higher self-rated mental and physical health.

Our research, informed by the existing public health literature, as well as interviews with directly impacted people and their families, reveals that trauma and negative health outcomes are common and compounded at every step for immigrants and refugees caught up in the criminal legal system — beginning prior to their migration to the US, and continuing after migration, during incarceration, immigration detention, deportation, and beyond.

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Governor Newsom has the power to stop the cycle of trauma immigrants and refugees face in California

We focused specifically on Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees, as they are often left out of dominant narratives around immigration and health, despite being 3 to 4 times more likely to be deported for past convictions than other immigrant communities. Many Southeast Asian refugees come to the US fleeing US-backed wars in their home countries, after having witnessed unbelievable atrocities. Once they’ve arrived in the US, structural racism creates the conditions that lead to many Southeast Asian families living in poor neighborhoods. Discriminatory policies and policing criminalize poverty and trauma, resulting in higher incarceration rates for young Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees.

Through the course of our research, we spoke with many families who have been torn apart by ICE transfers — too many people whose health and wellbeing has been harmed by the US criminal legal system and ICE detention and deportation. Their stories are a clear call to action: ICE transfers are deeply harmful to health and Governor Newsom must immediately stop them. A week before Governor Newsom transferred Tien to ICE custody we spoke with his sisters, Lien and Narissa, about how this practice has impacted them. Their responses are below.

Human Impact Partners: We found in our research that many immigrants and refugees coming to the US have experienced a lot of trauma, both before and after arriving in the US. Does this resonate with the experiences of you and your loved ones? How so?

Lien Pham: Yes. In our family experience, being in a whole different country and with a completely new language [we] are challenged. There were a lot of differences we had to learn to adapt and those first few years trying to settle in the US weren’t anywhere near easy for our family. I remember my parents were much more emotional, fighting more than I had ever seen them while we were still back in Vietnam; it w[as] those times my parents were struggling with low pay[ing] jobs, communicating with the outside world, and discrimination. At school, my siblings and I were also often frowned upon as the kids thought we came from another planet because we didn’t know how to speak English. We were referred to as “fobs” and “aliens.” We had it rough in those first years, and I still feel it’s still a challenge for our family, even after 24 years of being here.

Narissa Pham: Yes, it’s very traumatic for us, especially [for] my parents. Since they were old and didn’t speak English, didn’t understand the culture, and could not drive, they were taken advantage of in [the] workplace and lived in poor [and] violent neighborhoods. It made adjusting and adapting to the new environment so much more difficult. I recall seeing my mom crying every night because of being home sick and missing her family for months and feeling helpless in the US. My dad was very sad since he thought [he] was powerless since he could not provide enough for the family on minimum wage pay.

As for me, I worked minimum wage for $5.15 per hour during the day and went to ESL classes after work, having to take the bus and light rail train because I couldn’t afford to buy a car at that time, even though I had my driver[’s] license for a while already. A year later I applied to Evergreen College because I was qualified to pay a lower fee for being a resident. I had to start over even though [I] had almost finished my college degree in Vietnam, but with no English knowledge ([I was] only able to study Russian language when I was in Vietnam). I started a brand new life in the US, having to adjust a different culture, language, work, and school.

HIP: We also found that incarceration — in jails, prisons, or immigration detention centers — is harmful to people’s health and well-being, leading to chronic diseases and poor mental health. Have you seen incarceration harm your health and the health of your loved ones? How so?

Lien: My brother had been in prison for 20 years. I often asked him about his living conditions and learned that it’s overcrowded and their foods are normally pre-packaged. I’m truly concerned for his health in later years as we all know packaged foods are full of preservatives and do lead to many diseases. With our global pandemic, it’s very challenging to avoid the severely contagious COVID-19 in an overcrowded living space where they can’t practice social distancing, and [with the] lack of protective equipment like masks.

Tien has been living away from our family for over 20 years in prison. Every day the thought of him being safe in prison or not stresses us, especially our elderly parents. We fear Tien being hurt for his small size and being Asian; the high potential violence and discrimination against him. Each week, when we don’t hear from Tien through a phone call gets my parents worried — they run through questions and scenarios of what could happen that he couldn’t call us this week. It’s the fear of [the] unknown that keeps our minds unrested, and it isn’t like we can pick up our phone and get connected to him right away.

HIP: As you know, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation works with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain people after they are released from prison or jail. How do you think this system of direct transfers impacts health?

Lien: In my opinion, I think it’s unfair. My brother, for example, made a mistake in his minor year[s] and he had paid a lot of time for what he had done — 20 years so far in prison, to be exact. It’s only fair for him to come home where he will get all his family support after being released from prison. And home here for us is where we are — right in the US where my family immigrated to and worked hard to settle. For my brother to continue to be detained with ICE, it’s no differen[t] from being transferred from one prison to another.

The potential ICE transfer that Tien is facing* again brings us to another fear of [the] unknown. It’s a new place he would be transferred to — we worry for his adaptation, his health in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic and a high chance of COVID-19 exposure during the transfer, and above all the same mental stress my family would go through worrying for his safety.

HIP: In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen when someone is released from prison or jail?

Lien: In the ideal world, when someone is released from prison he or she would get to have a reset button in their life. He’s granted rights like any other citizen. He goes back out to his community, earns a degree he desires, [and] works in a job where he can give back to his community.

*After this interview with Lien and Narisa, Tien was transferred to ICE on August 31, 2020.

Learn more about how ICE transfers harm health:

Christine Mitchell is a Research Associate at Human Impact Partners. She is excited to partner with grassroots organizations doing liberative work on the ground and to continue researching the ways that incarceration and policing impact the health of people and communities.

Human Impact Partners (HIP) is a national public health non-profit organization working to transform the field of public health to center equity and build collective power with social justice movements. The Health Instead of Punishment Program at HIP fights for a society where all people are healthy and free.

🙌 If you’re interested in learning more about this research and ways to advocate to Stop ICE Transfers, contact Christine Mitchell at christine@humanimpact.org.

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