Immigration activist arrested in Philadelphia after protesting ICE director

Nancy Nguyen is executive director of VietLead. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nancy Nguyen is executive director of VietLead. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated at 8:05 p.m.

Southeast Asian immigrant rights activist Nancy Nguyen was arrested in her home Thursday evening for allegedly trespassing and littering during a protest in Virginia in early September, according to social media posts by the group VietLead. Nguyen is the organization’s co-founder and executive director.

Nguyen was released without bail from police department headquarters Friday after 5 p.m. where around 50 supporters from VietLead, Juntos, and other organizations had been protesting her arrest throughout the afternoon. Upon her exit, Nguyen was greeted by supporters including her family and Philadelphia City Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks.

“I didn’t know y’all were here, it’s really cold down there and there were a lot of people down there,” said Nguyen.

She did not address charges against her, simply saying, “There’s a lot of questions and you’ll be hearing more from us.”

Philadelphia police and federal law enforcement agents arrested Nguyen in her home at about 7:30 p.m, according to VietLead. The group noted that Nguyen has two young children, one- and three-years-old.

The arrest is said to stem from a Sept. 8 demonstration outside the home of Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director Tony Pham, a Vietnamese refugee with a long career in law enforcement who has not yet been confirmed to lead the agency by the U.S. Senate.

Protesters visited Pham’s home near Richmond, Va. and placed signs on his law, according to local news coverage of the demonstration. The protest was a part of coordinated actions around the country that day, calling attention to human rights abuses in ICE detention. Immigrant rights groups called Pham a “‘puppet’ for a white nationalist administration.”

“Her arrest is politically motivated. It was a message that said, ‘This is what we’re willing to do if you dare to fight back,’ But we have no choice but to fight back,” per a statement from VietLead.

Protesters
Protesters outside of PPD headquarters over the arrest of Nancy Nguyen. (Laura Benshoff / WHYY)

Gym echoed those concerns and criticism of Pham on Friday, saying, “It’s important for us to be conscious right now of upholding our civil rights and civil liberties,” not bowing to the “overwrought emotions of a bureaucrat who heads up an agency which has been responsible for the most grotesque human rights abuses of our generation.”

The local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office referred all questions to law enforcement in Henrico County, Virginia. A WHYY request there is pending. Officials haven’t yet confirmed the nature of the charges against Nguyen.

In a statement from the City’s press office, Philadelphia officials criticized the circumstances of her arrest. “It is extremely unfortunate that a local community leader was arrested for actions taken while defending the rights of immigrants held by ICE,” they said in a statement provided by spokesperson Irene Reyes Contrera. They also defended the actions of local police officers.

“The Philadelphia Police Department followed the City’s standing procedures for cooperating with other law enforcement agencies,”  they wrote. “When she reconciles the warrant in Virginia, the charge in Philadelphia will be expunged.”

VietLead, founded in 2015, is a grassroots community organization serving Vietnamese and Southeast Asian diaspora communities in Philadelphia and South Jersey, with a focus on “community self-determination, social justice, and cultural resilience,” according to its website.

The group’s activities range from community garden initiatives, to education, to legal accompaniment for people in the midst of immigration proceedings.

“Nancy is a sister,” said Gym. “She’s a leader in our city across the board, she’s been fighting for justice all her life.”

Vietlead, founded in 2015, is a grassroots community organization serving Vietnamese and southeast Asian diaspora communities in Philadelphia and South Jersey, with a focus on “community self-determination, social justice, and cultural resilience,” according to its website.

The group’s activities range from community garden initiatives, to education, to legal accompaniment for immigrants in the midst of an immigration proceeding.

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