The head of a prominent Vietnamese activist group in Philadelphia was arrested Thursday night on charges related to a protest that took place weeks ago outside the Virginia home of the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Nancy Nguyen, 38, cofounder and executive director of VietLead, was held in police custody until shortly after 5 p.m. Friday, when she was released on her own recognizance. She was greeted by hugs and cheers from a crowd of supporters who gathered outside Philadelphia Police headquarters.
She had been arrested at her Philadelphia home at about 7:30 p.m. Thursday by city police and federal law-enforcement officers for allegedly trespassing and littering during the nonviolent Sept. 8 protest near Richmond, according to a statement from VietLead.
Nguyen is a veteran organizer in the city’s Asian American and Vietnamese communities, and among its most respected young leaders.
Protesters had gone to the Henrico County home of ICE head Tony Pham to place signs on his lawn expressing their concern over the treatment of federal immigration detainees, according to news reports.
Pham told WRVA Newsradio, “It’s so disappointing that our level of discourse in today’s society has disintegrated to the [point] where individuals, as you saw, thought it was OK to target a mom and target children when the real protest should’ve been at my office.”
ICE officials in Philadelphia and Washington declined to answer questions on Friday. ICE spokespeople in Washington referred inquiries to the Henrico County police, who said they would look into the matter.
VietLead asserted in a statement that Nguyen was arrested “on bogus charges for her activism in the immigrant rights movement.”
The group called on supporters to phone Mayor Kenney and the Philadelphia Police Department to demand Nguyen’s release. About 20 people gathered outside police headquarters at about noon on Friday, making and holding signs in support of Nguyen.
VietLead declined further comment. Philadelphia Police referred questions to the U.S. Marshals Service, which said it had no information on the case.
The Kenney administration shares Nguyen’s concerns about the treatment of federal immigration detainees, a city spokesperson said, and is “committed to defending the immigrant communities that have chosen Philadelphia as their home.”
The Police Department followed standard procedures, the spokesperson said, and acted after being notified of an active arrest warrant from an outside jurisdiction, which requested that the department serve the warrant in Philadelphia. A magistrate in Virginia signed the warrant.
City Councilmember Helen Gym said she was “deeply disturbed about what appears to be a gross overreach to imprison a mother of two and a major Asian American leader in our community."
“ICE has proven itself to be a rogue agency that’s implicated in the most grotesque human rights abuses of our generation,” Gym said. "I have zero trust in this entity, and I am very concerned that this is yet another abuse of its powers to intimidate and quash dissent.”
VietLead was among the organizations that took part in protests against Pham, who came to this country as a refugee from Vietnam. Demonstrators declared, “Pham, you’re not family!”
Those protests took place from California to Miami to Washington, as well as outside Pham’s home, according to news reports in Vietrise.org. Refugee, sanctuary, and social-justice groups criticized ICE as steeped in white supremacy and xenophobia, and called for an end to the detention of immigrants amid a killing pandemic.
They denounced Pham as a “puppet” for a white nationalist presidential administration, according to reports on Vietrise.org.
Pham, whose title is Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director, previously served as the agency’s principal legal adviser.
He and his family came to the United States as refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the last American troops left Vietnam as the Communist North won the war. As a boy, he took English classes to assist his parents in studying for their citizenship tests, according to his ICE biography. The Pham family became U.S. citizens in 1985.
VietLead said in a statement on Friday : “Tony Pham continues to use his refugee narrative to justify his qualifications to lead an institution that continues to enact state-sanctioned violence against Black and brown communities.”
Leaders of the Southeast Asian Freedom Network, a national collective of Southeast Asian groups working for justice, on Friday called her nighttime arrest a “a strategy we know all too well, to scare us into silence.”
Nguyen was arrested and taken away in front of her 1- and 3-year-old children, the group said — familiar circumstances to those raised in nations with repressive regimes.
VietLead is a grassroots community organization in Philadelphia and South Jersey whose work includes farming healthy food, youth organizing, and in recent years, protecting immigrants from Trump administration crackdowns.
Nguyen has been executive director for five years, and previously served as executive director of BPSOS-Delaware Valley, another Vietnamese-advocacy organization in the region.