What Is #StopAAPIHate to the Incarcerated and Deported?

From the Series: The Damage Wrought: Immigration Before, Under, and After Trump

A map of dangers as resources made by a young Mexican border crosser.

On March 15, 2021, the Biden administration authorized a flight deporting thirty-three Vietnamese Americans from Texas to Vietnam. Most of the people on the flight had been in the United States for more than three decades. As such, the action contradicted a 2008 memorandum of understanding (MOU) that barred the United States from deporting any Vietnamese immigrants who arrived prior to the reestablishment of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations in 1995. While it was the Trump administration that initially unilaterally reinterpreted the MOU to exclude Vietnamese Americans with criminal charges from protection against deportation, Biden’s White House has appeared more than willing to extend its predecessor’s anti-immigrant policy. The Biden administration’s hypocrisy in authorizing the flight just days after denouncing COVID-19 era “AAPI Hate” in his first presidential address to the nation was not lost on anti-deportation organizers. Attempting to #groundtheplane, Vietnamese American organizations immediately coordinated protests across the country. Chanting “deporting Vietnamese refugees is anti-Asian violence!,” organizers highlighted the limitations of discourses framing efforts to “#StopAAPIHate” through an individualized and carceral lens.

At a March 15th protest in Little Saigon (Orange County, California), a sign in Vietnamese and English reads, “Deporting Vietnamese Refugees Is Anti-Asian Violence.” Image courtesy of Timothy Phan.

These deportations took place at a moment of heightened public attention to ongoing violent attacks against Asian Americans in the COVID-19 context.1 Indeed, it was just one day after the March 15th flight that an Atlanta gunman murdered massage parlor workers Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yuan, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. Much anger has been rightfully directed at the Trump administration for its role in fomenting these attacks through its persistent association of COVID-19 with Asians and Asian Americans. Yet framing the issue as a question of individualized bias obscures historical and structural violences that cannot be resolved by putting someone in jail. It obscures state violences precisely of the kind exemplified by deporting thirty-three people who fled the very region of the world upon which the United States spent the better part of the late 1960s and early 1970s enacting unthinkable death and destruction.2

Indeed, framing anti-Asian violence as a question of individualized harm provides humanitarian cover for efforts to strengthen the very carceral institutions that target AAPIs, especially poor Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Calls to #StopAAPIHate have forged rare bipartisan political energy toward increasing prosecution of certain attacks as hate crimes and emboldening hate crime statutes more broadly by both widening the kinds of incidents prosecutable as hate crimes and extending their severity and length of punishment. Signed into federal law in May 2021, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act streamlines mechanisms for reporting, collecting data on, and prosecuting hate crimes. It also creates a new violent-crime category. A “COVID-19 Hate Crime” would be prosecutable as a violent crime motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived membership in categories protected by extant hate crime legislation and their actual or perceived relationship to the spread of COVID-19. The bill essentially puts more people in jail (and subsequently the pipeline to deportation), for longer—a move that inevitably enacts considerable violence on criminalized and illegalized AAPI communities.

Consider the story of forty-nine-year-old Tien Pham, one of the thirty-three deportees on the March 15th flight. In a Twitter thread intended as a last-ditch effort to garner public support for halting Pham’s deportation, Anoop Prasad (Pham’s attorney) drew out the layers of carceral and state-sanctioned trauma inflicted upon Pham throughout his life. Born in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War to a father who had fought with the South Vietnamese army alongside U.S. troops, Pham and his family were tortured in reeducation camps when the United States retreated from Saigon. The torture, combined with several years spent in a refugee camp, made it such that the teenage Pham was dealing with severe trauma by the time he was resettled in a poor neighborhood in San Jose, California. Bullied at school and dealing with gang violence, Pham found that joining a gang was the only way to maintain some modicum of safety. When he was seventeen, Pham was accused of stabbing someone in a fight and was charged as an adult with attempted murder. After serving twenty years of his twenty-eight-year sentence, a parole board agreed Pham posed no danger to society. The day of his scheduled release his family stood anxiously in front of San Quentin State Prison waiting to bring Pham home for the first time in two decades. Upon release however, Pham became one of the 3,200 people transferred directly from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to ICE custody between 2019 and 2020 alone. After spending six months in ICE detention, Pham was deported.

In Orange County, California, anti-deportation activists call on the Biden administration to #Groundtheplane scheduled to deport thirty-three Vietnamese Americans on March 15, 2021. Image courtesy of Timothy Phan.

Having been shuffled from one form of carceral institution to another since his youth, Pham’s life has been made significantly worse by the very structures that hate crimes statutes enacted in the name of #StopAAPIHate seek to embolden. Naomi Murakawa (2014, 154) has argued that, historically, hate crime legislation has served as a potent weapon in a larger toolkit of post-war “liberal-law-and-order” that relies on “administrative tinkering” to “distract from the normative core of punishment in a system of persistent racial hierarchy.” Instead of forcing us to interrogate how we came to believe that individualized punishment is a good solution to violence, it constricts our questions to reformist minutiae about how to punish people more severely. Indeed, in sublimating the state violence that so often animates the individualized violence that hate crimes target, it allows liberals to claim victory while literally getting away with all sorts of murder.

As of spring 2021, less than one year out from seeing #DefundthePolice be taken seriously within liberal political discourse in the wake of some of the largest mass protests against the carceral state that this country has ever seen, some of the Asian American organizations advocating for intensified hate crime statutes are the same ones that released bold public statements announcing their “solidarity with the Black community” during the 2020 summer of uprising. How did the structures of state violence so recently indicted as the problem so quickly become the imagined sources of salvation? What does providing added strength to the interwoven prison and military industrial complexes that engulf and entrap the lives of refugees and low-income, working people do for Tien Pham?


1. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition of scholars and activists who came together to document anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, received reports of some 3,795 “hate incidents” between March 2020 and February 2021. In 2020, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported a 149 percent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States’ largest cities as compared to a 7 percent drop in overall hate crime reports in the same year.

2. Authorized by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder constituted an incessant bombing campaign on the North Vietnamese that would last for three and a half years. This destruction is compounded by subsequent secret bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia carried out under suspicion that the North Vietnamese were using these neighboring countries as staging grounds. Between 1969 and 1973, the United States dropped some 54,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia alone.


Murakawa, Naomi. 2014. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.