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Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran, Cinthya Felix, and the Immigrant Youth Movement

At a time when saying, 'I'm undocumented' was a radical statement, these two activists said it with pride.
 
 
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Editor’s Note – Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix were trailblazers. As early leaders of the immigrant youth movement, they were among this generation’s first group of undocumented students to graduate from college and enter graduate school. Against all odds, they were models of success. Their untimely deaths in 2010, at the hands of a drunk driver, robbed the movement of two remarkable leaders – but also inspired those left behind to take up the cause they fought for with ever more vigilance.

The following excerpt from the recently released book Undocumented and Unafraid:Tam Tran,Cinthya Felix, and the Immigrant Youth Movement, offers an inside look at the challenges Tam and Cinthya faced as undocumented students, and their extraordinary efforts to speak out in support of the DREAM Act – even when the consequences for their own families might be dire.


On May 15, 2010, Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix, leaders in the movement to pass the DREAM Act, were killed in a car accident. Their tragic passing has galvanized the movement they left behind.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act proposes to grant United States citizenship to undocumented students or those who entered the country as children. It was first introduced in Congress in 2001 under a different name and has been reintroduced several times, most recently in 2010. The effort to get the bill enacted into law has been growing for a decade, and the national campaign for its passage has emerged as one of the most important social-justice movements of this generation. Students who stand to benefit from the law have conducted civil disobedience in the halls of Congress; organized hunger strikes; marched in the Trail of Dreams from Florida to Washington, DC; orchestrated the Dream Freedom Ride from Los Angeles to Washington, DC; and participated in many other actions.

The movement to pass the DREAM Act arose in the hearts and minds of thousands of young immigrants who claim America as their home; the movement has created powerful bonds among these young activists who are assuming leadership roles and shaping the nation’s future.

Tam and Cinthya both grew up in undocumented immigrant families. Against the odds, both graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and entered prestigious graduate schools. Indeed, Tam and Cinthya were among the very few undocumented immigrant graduate students  in  the  country.  Tam was enrolled in a doctoral program in American civilization at Brown University; Cinthya was in a master’s program in public health at Columbia University, and she planned to apply for medical school. Both were leading advocates for passage of the DREAM Act, both with a national reputation as activists. Dream students are carrying on Tam’s and Cinthya’s work in their honor and memory.

Of the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, more than two million are minors. These young people had no say in the decision to come to this country; they were brought here by parents or relatives seeking a better life. The aim of the DREAM Act is to give those young people an opportunity to earn legal status by completing two years of higher education or through service in the US military.

Dream activists like Tam and Cinthya became advocates for their own legal status as part of the broader fight for immigration reform. The rise in visibility of such activists challenged the pejorative labels of “illegal” and “law-breaking” frequently used in congressional and media debates on immigration. Tam and Cinthya and others like them showed America a different, more accurate image of undocumented youth that exemplified all that we value and hope for in our children: leadership, courage, articulateness, civic-minded commitment, and professional skills. They epitomized the motto of the DREAM Act movement: Undocumented and Unafraid. Breaking the habit of fear and anonymity by sharing their stories, they advanced a powerful movement for social justice.

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.

Like other undocumented immigrants, Cinthya was unable to get a driver’s license in California. She understood the contradiction: “The state wants our money, so they let us buy the car, get insurance, and pay for registration. But when it comes to giving us a license, they don’t want to give you one” (Tran 2007). She could not get a license in California, but she had a plan. She organized a group of students to drive to the state of Washington, where it is easier for immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Tam Tran was one of the few students in IDEAS who had a driver’s license, so she joined the trip and brought her camera to document the experience, producing the film The Seattle Underground Railroad.

At UCLA, Cinthya was one of the founders of IDEAS, which began as a clandestine support group. Undocumented students gathered to share survival tips and assist one another in navigating the frequently unfriendly waters of the big university. As the group’s numbers grew, it developed into a bold public-advocacy organization, orchestrating mock graduation ceremonies on campus, immigrant youth empowerment conferences that drew hundreds of students to UCLA, and an annual banquet that raised funds for members to complete their educations. Cinthya and Tam became leading activists and fast friends. After their deaths, IDEAS was recognized by the University of California’s president and regents as an outstanding student organization within the university.

Cinthya graduated with a degree in English literature and minors in Spanish and Mexican studies, but her ambition was to have a career in medicine. Since she was certain that medical schools would not accept applicants without legal status, she decided to apply to master’s degree programs in public health instead, eventually choosing Columbia University. In graduate school, she conducted research on health care access within immigrant communities, while waiting tables at night to support herself.

Tam and Cinthya were pioneers, undocumented immigrant students who had made it into graduate programs at exclusive private universities. But this achievement was not without its share of alienation and isolation. As they had in California, Tam and Cinthya relied on each other, and their experiences on the East Coast only deepened their friendship. To celebrate the end of the school year, they took a road trip to Maine to visit lighthouses, eat lobster, and prepare for summer. As they were returning from their trip, they were killed by a drunk driver who swerved into their lane of traffic.

Two days later, more than five hundred students gathered at UCLA for a memorial in Tam’s and Cinthya’s honor. Vigils were held in Los Angeles, Orange County, New York, Washington, DC, Rhode Island, and Florida. Students in Arizona made buttons bearing Tam’s and Cinthya’s pictures. Most importantly, students in many areas of the country commemorated Tam’s and Cinthya’s spirit by carrying on their work, staging sit-ins, street closures, civil disobedience actions, hunger strikes, the Dream Freedom Ride, and other activities. These untimely deaths have been mourned and memorialized by members of Congress, the California state legislature, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the Los Angeles City Council. In Tam’s and Cinthya’s memory, Dream activists reaffirmed their commitment to fight for the DREAM Act.

Although we mourn the passing of Cinthya and Tam, we celebrate their lives.  They were sisters;  they  were  kindred spirits, always in sync, planning their next meal, their next act of defiant and optimistic activism, searching for a new adventure, pursuing their next dream. They accomplished more in their short lives than ever could have been imagined. Their spirit lives on in the hundreds of IDEAS alumni, in the thousands of young immigrants who embrace them as role models, and in the millions of immigrants who will one day be empowered to emerge from the shadows.

Reprinted by permission of the authors. Copyright UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.