Appreciation: Tam Tran, Advocate for the Undocumented

Appreciation: Tam Tran, Advocate for the Undocumented

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When I learned that Tam Tran had died in a car crash earlier this month, I felt sorrow and disbelief.
Had the young woman I’d befriended last November, over conversations about the Vietnamese diaspora, filmmaking, activism, and graduate school, really been killed in car accident along with her friend and fellow activist Cinthya Felix?

When I met Tam at the American Studies Association conference, she was so centered, compassionate, and warm. Over dinner, Tam had mentioned her advocacy for undocumented students through her filmmaking—she later sent me her film “Lost and Found.” Yet she’d relayed her passions so humbly. Tam never announced that she was, actually, a nationally celebrated advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrant students, an effort she began in earnest as a student at UCLA. She never openly recalled her 2007 testimonies to the House Judiciary Committee as a pioneer in the student movement for the DREAM Act, which, if passed, would give undocumented students who graduated from a U.S. high school a path to citizenship through university education or military service.

Instead we discussed mutual origins—our parents escaped Việt Nam, before we were born, as part of the postwar exodus. Tam's last email to me mentioned that she had ordered lê thị diễm thúy's "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," after my recommendation. Since bereavement informs so much of that stunning novel about the Vietnamese boat refugee experience and diasporic identity, I find it especially poignant that we said goodbye within its tender pages.

Tam’s story differs from typical Vietnamese-American experiences, since her 1982 birth in Germany after her father fled Việt Nam by boat entered her into a statelessness that followed her throughout her 27 years. The German navy had rescued her father’s boat at sea, but wouldn’t grant citizenship to him or his family. Although the family eventually emigrated to the United States to live near Tam’s aunt, the United States denied them asylum, since they came from Germany and not Việt Nam.

From age 6, Tam grew up in California lacking citizenship anywhere—in the words of her UCLA mentor and friend Professor Kent Wong, as “a victim of a disgraceful immigration morass.” Yet her struggles shaped her compassion for those lacking legal status. At UCLA, Tam co-founded with Cinthya Felix an undocumented student support network, Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (IDEAS), while pursuing her B.A. in American Literature and Culture.

She also learned documentary filmmaking and made “Lost and Found,” a short advocacy film about an undocumented student at UCLA. When she entered a doctorate program at Brown University in Rhode Island, she co-founded the Brown Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (BIRC).

Two years into her doctorate, Tam outlined a groundbreaking dissertation, merging historical inquiry with participant observation to consider the power of student politics over the last half-century.
As a student, Tam became one of the nation’s leading advocates for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (“DREAM Act”).

In 2007, Tam testified before Congres.

“I hate filling out forms, especially the ones that limit me to checking off boxes for categories I don’t even identity with,” Tam told the House Judiciary Committee.

“Place of birth? Germany. But I’m not German. Ethnicity? I’m Vietnamese, but I’ve never been to Việt Nam. However, these forms never ask me where I was raised or educated.”

Since many undocumented students fear immigration authorities, they rarely speak in public about their legal status, especially on a stage as large as Congress. Tam was that courageous, even at age 24.

And it was her testimony that brought about her worst fears—and her strongest support. Three days later, ICE agents raided her family’s home to arrest her parents and younger brother, hoping to silence Tam’s activism. Through calls to Congress and immigration attorneys, Tam stopped her family’s detention and deportation. Yet their freedom was contingent upon ankle bracelets and curfews—house arrest. Although shaken, Tam was also aware of their power.

She told Kent Wong at UCLA, “My family is one of the lucky ones. Most immigrants don’t have access to Congress and immigration attorneys, and just disappear.”

In 2009, she expressed anger yet resolved to keep fighting to change immigration in this country. "I wasn't going to let anything stop me," Tam told Lori Kido Lopez. "Now my parents understand why I do immigrant's rights activism. If anything, ironically, this whole mess of events made us closer as a family."

I mourn her family’s loss, as they part with their brave, brilliant, beautiful, and loving Tam. Her brother Lolly writes, “We are happy to see that she touched so many lives.” Yet concern for her family’s fate, with Tam gone, weighs heavily on her friends and allies. Hundreds have signed a petition to senators regarding her family’s immigration status, requesting posthumous citizenship for Tam. “There is real fear that without Tam’s presence and protection, the family is now in danger of detention and possibly deportation,” the petition explains. “Tam’s prominence and public activism acted as a shield for the entire family. Her death leaves them vulnerable to ICE intimidation and arrest.”

Perhaps our advocacy is helped by the Rhode Island legislature’s resolutions on May 20, expressing profound sympathy for Tam’s passing. “Tam Ngoc Tran was a humble and gentle soul who departed this world all too soon, but left a profound and lasting legacy,” the bills explain. “Her efforts to give undocumented students the right to pursue higher education were noble and heartfelt. She uplifted and enriched the lives of all who knew her and she was an inspiration to us all.” Within continued debates about “illegality” and immigrants’ “rights” to remain here, hopefully the recognition granted to Tam by these unique resolutions would guard her family from deportation from their home of 21 years. Tam’s passing is already one too many tragedies.

Julie Thi Underhill is a filmmaker, photographer, essayist, poet, and doctoral student of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.

Photo courtesy of Brown University.