Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran, Cinthya Felix, and the Immigrant Youth Movement
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When Tam was six years old, the Tran family came to the United States to join other family members who had settled in California. Tam’s parents applied for political asylum, but their request was denied after many years because they had emigrated from Germany rather than directly from Vietnam. The family received a withholding of deportation exemption, but their status provides no path to legal residency or US citizenship. Tam was Vietnamese, but she had never been to Vietnam and was not a Vietnamese citizen. She was born in Germany, but Germany does not grant citizenship based on birthright. And although Tam spent more than twenty years in the United States, the American government refused to grant her legal status. So she was not only undocumented but also stateless, trapped in a disgraceful immigration morass.
Tam grew up in Garden Grove, California. She graduated from Santiago High School, attended Santa Ana College, and then transferred to UCLA. She worked multiple jobs while carrying a full course load and was also a prominent student leader and activist. At UCLA, she found a home with IDEAS, the support organization for undocumented immigrant students. She was a gifted filmmaker who produced acclaimed documentaries that have been screened nationwide. The two best-known are Lost and Found and The Seattle Underground Railroad (2007). Both capture the stories of undocumented UCLA students and celebrate the struggles and accomplishments of young immigrants. These moving, humorous, and insightful films provide a sharp analysis of oppressive immigration laws and their impact on youth.
Tam gave public talks on the DREAM Act, screened her films, and promoted Underground Undergrads, the UCLA Labor Center student publication on undocumented immigrant students, throughout the country. She made presentations before the national convention of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance in Nevada, to the first Asian Pacific worker rights hearing in Washington, DC, and at the 2009 American Sociological Association conference in San Francisco, to name a few. Each time, she spoke with eloquence, grace, and power, and each time, she recruited more allies to support the movement of immigrant youth and students.
As a leading national advocate for the DREAM Act, Tam testified before the US Congressional Immigration Subcommittee on May 18, 2007. Given her undocumented status, this was an act of considerable personal courage. Three days later, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents staged a predawn raid on her family’s home in Orange County and took her parents and brother into custody. Tam reached out to members of Congress and immigration attorneys and succeeded in getting her family released and stopping their deportation. Throughout this ordeal, she kept her focus, remarking, “My family is one of the lucky ones. Most immigrants don’t have access to Congress and immigration attorneys; they just disappear.”
Tam entered the doctoral program in American civilization at Brown University. She joked, “Maybe if I get a PhD in American civilization, they will finally let me become an American.” In Rhode Island as in California, she swiftly became a leader. She continued to advocate for passage of the DREAM Act, founded the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition (BIRC), and helped launch the first statewide network of undocumented immigrant youths and students. She mobilized student contingents for marches in Washington, DC, and lobbying visits to the Rhode Island congressional delegation and statehouse. A few weeks after her death, Brown University awarded her a master’s degree in recognition of her extraordinary achievements.
Cinthya Felix was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, on January 23, 1984. At fifteen, her parents moved the family to Los Angeles in an attempt to survive economically. The Felix family settled in the historic Mexican community of East Los Angeles. In high school, Cinthya was a brilliant student and an accomplished basketball player. She enrolled at UCLA, a two-hour commute by bus. She worked hard, saved money, and bought a car, audaciously giving it the vanity license plate YLLEGAL.