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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.

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.