Spotlight on 2017 Speaker Huyen Pham
Interview by Thai Nguyen
Huyen, it is a privilege to have you as our keynote speaker this year. Would you share briefly with our attendees your path to the practice of law and academia?
Growing up, I never thought about being a professor. When I was a kid, my dream job was to own a pet store because I wanted to play with animals all day. As I got older and a little more practical, I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be in court, I wanted to help people, but I never thought about teaching law, much less teaching immigration law. But reflecting on the personal and professional path that my life has taken, I see that teaching and writing about immigration law was a natural culmination of my life experiences and interests.
Your legal education and career has taken you from Missouri, Massachusetts, Texas, and even to the Philippines and Vietnam. Can you walk us through some of your proudest experiences and tell us about your current role(s)?
I am a professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth, Texas. The most visible part of my work is my teaching: I teach immigration law, administrative law, and criminal law. I love teaching; I love having the opportunity to talk to my students about very important and complex legal principles. I try to teach as much black letter law as exists in these different legal areas, but I strongly encourage my students to think about the law as a dynamic field. I encourage my students to look for opportunities to make changes in the law and to exercise good judgment in individual cases, to benefit not just their clients but also to advance social justice. There is a lot of discretion in the law, and I want my students, when they find themselves in positions of power, to exercise that discretion to help the voiceless in our society.
I didn’t start with a very clear plan for my professional career; I just tried to take advantage of the best opportunities available to me at different stages of my life. In college, I had the great fortune to get involved with Phillips Brooks House, the student-run public interest organization at Harvard College. Through PBH, I started working with refugee children (mostly Vietnamese) living in Dorchester (a predominantly African American neighborhood in Boston), teaching English and eventually, directing a summer camp for them. Working with this program, the Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment program (BRYE), was one of the most formative experiences of my life. My fellow camp counselors and I lived in Dorchester, and we tried to be as involved in the community as much as possible. Looking back, I see that we made so many, many mistakes in our pedagogy and our community organizing efforts, but hopefully, we did some good as well. A lot of my BRYE friends continue to work in fields related to education or refugee issues (including Joe Thai, an NCVAA old-timer!).
I also spent a year after college on an Echoing Green fellowship, working in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Palawan, Philippines. That too was a very formative experience, to see firsthand the hardships that stateless people face but also to see the resilience of the camp residents who were my students, neighbors, and friends. My work in the camp was supported by a non-profit group called Hong Bang, and now I’m the president of the organization! We are a non-profit organization that supports poor, rural communities in Vietnam. We provide financial support for grassroots projects and also send overseas volunteers to work in Vietnam (www.hongbang.org).
Could you tell us about some of your current work or research projects?
A lot of my work comes out of the intersection of immigration law, administrative law, and criminal law. Most of my research focuses on immigration law (including the talk I will give at NCVAA), but this summer, I had a fascinating opportunity to give lectures on U.S. administrative law, including a talk to members of the Vietnamese National Assembly. Vietnam is considering big changes to its administrative law system and is looking to other countries’ legal systems for ideas. But foreign legal systems can’t be transferred wholesale to Vietnam. For example, judges in Vietnam are not independent; in the U.S., our federal judges have lifetime tenure and protected salaries, so they can exercise power as an independent check on other branches of government. An independent judiciary is not in the political cards for Vietnam. So for someone like me who studies administrative law, one of the key issues in thinking about Vietnam’s system is: how can you impose control and ensure that administrative agencies are doing their job—making regulations based on public interest and not merely in the interest of the regulated industry—in the absence of an independent judiciary? That was the gist of the conversations I had with National Assembly members; it was a really interesting and educational experience for me.
What are some of the key takeaways you hope attendees will take away from their time at this year’s conference?
My goal is to encourage all of us to think of ways we can channel our work toward public service and community service. As Vietnamese Americans, we should think carefully about how we define our community. For older generations of Vietnamese, “community” seemed to be defined by ethnicity and geography; my mother, for example, is very involved with our Vietnamese church and our Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans. When I told her that I wanted to do volunteer work in the Vietnamese refugee camps, she thought that I was crazy, because the camps were outside her definition of community. In college and beyond, I worked largely in Vietnamese communities (both in the U.S. and overseas), but as I have become more involved with immigration law advocacy, I am beginning to define my community as the larger community of immigrants in the U.S., regardless of ethnicity.
That said, because of my work in Vietnam and Hong Bang, Inc., I do think that there is a lot of good work that Vietnamese Americans can do in Vietnam. There is something special about being Vietnamese—there is a shared language, culture, and heritage that can naturally connect us with the people in Vietnam, making it easier to work there. In Hong Bang, our most effective volunteers are Vietnamese-American, because of that shared heritage.
What unique point of view do you think Vietnamese Americans can add to the current civic and political conversation about immigration and refugee law?
It’s funny that you ask this question because just tonight, my daughter asked me if I had immigrated legally to the U.S. She got a much longer answer than she probably wanted, but I told her, in essence, that I immigrated here under a very different, much more generous system than what she sees around here now.
We Vietnamese are perhaps the last wave of immigrants/refugees that the U.S. accepted with enthusiasm. While there were, to be sure, Americans who opposed resettling large numbers of Vietnamese after the war, our reception here has been very positive, especially compared with the highly negative treatment that many Muslims, Central Americans, and other refugee groups have experienced. In the U.S., Vietnamese culture is largely viewed in a positive light (who doesn’t love pho?) and Vietnamese-Americans have been able to find success in surprising places (those televised poker games always seem to have a Vietnamese player). We should remind our fellow Americans (and ourselves) that we are immigrants and refugees, and in the same way that we have been able to thrive in the U.S., other immigrants will too, if they are given the support and acceptance that we Vietnamese had.