A Monday-afternoon drive from Santa Ana to UCLA is brutal no matter what route drivers take; construction near the school’s Interstate 405 exits makes reaching the campus seem like walking through mud. Nevertheless, 15 members of the Orange County Dream Team squeezed into three cars on May 17 to make the trip—they owed it to Tam Tran.
That day, at Moore Hall 100, more than 500 people from across the country came to remember Tran and her friend Cinthya Felix of Los Angeles. Both were UCLA graduates pursuing advanced degrees back East—Tran sought a doctorate in American Civilization from Brown University, while Felix was studying for a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. Both had their lives tragically cut short on a lonely Maine road just two days earlier, when a speeding truck slammed head-first into a car in which the two were passengers.
But more than just mourning the lives of the two young women, the Dream Team was paying respects to one of its own. Tran, an Orange County resident, was also an undocumented college student (as was Felix): someone who grew up in this country without papers or much connection to her native land and pursued higher education, but whose legal status forced her to scrape for tuition each semester because she wasn’t eligible for most scholarships and federal student aid. Tran was not only a contemporary and friend of theirs, but she was also a mentor, even a hero.
“Everyone knew her in the movement—she was one of the most famous people in it,” said Yenni Diaz, a UC Irvine undergraduate. “But she always remained humble, always wanted to help. Such a beautiful woman—we had to go and honor family.”
Diaz is a co-chairperson of the Dream Team, a coalition of Orange County college students, community organizations and supporters seeking to convince Congress to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. First proposed (with a different name) in 2001, re-introduced as a Senate and House bill last year, and co-sponsored by 118 Representatives and 36 Senators after years of dying in various committees, the bill would create a pathway to citizenship for young adults who attend college or enlist in the military. Since the Dream Team’s creation in 2004, members have joined with similar groups across the country for moral and logistical support. And for many involved in the movement, Tran was their most eloquent, prominent soldier.
“By nature, she was shy and quiet—yet she had her voice heard,” adds Diaz. “She gave us a voice when so many of us still aren’t comfortable to say things in public. She was known, but she always remained grounded.”
Tran’s story is but one of hundreds of thousands shared by fellow undocumented college students, but it illustrates the United States’ current immigration-system morass better than most. Her father, Tuan Ngoc Tran, fled Communist Vietnam like many of his countrymen—but instead of ending up in a refugee camp administered by the United States, like his sister, he was on a boat that was rescued by the German navy. They sent Tuan and his wife to Germany but didn’t allow them to become citizens. There, the couple had Tam and her brother, Thien—but the children were also were denied German citizenship.
The Trans took a flight to the United States in 1990, when Tam was 6, ending up in Little Saigon and applying for political asylum. Seven years later, their request was answered: denied. After more years of legal wrangling, an immigration panel decided the Trans couldn’t return to Vietnam for fear of political persecution but couldn’t legally stay in the United States. They ordered the family deported to Germany, but there was a problem: Germany wouldn’t have them.
“When people think about ‘illegals,’ they think of mexicanos,” says Vanessa Castillo, a graduate student at USC and Diaz’s Dream Team co-chairperson. “Tran’s story showed America that the DREAM Act isn’t a Mexican issue; it’s a people issue.”
All along, Tran lived life like any typical Orange County teenager, graduating from Santiago High in 2001 and enrolling at Santa Ana College, where she was one of the founding members of the group that eventually turned into the Dream Team. In 2004, Tran transferred to UCLA, where she connected with other undocumented students via a group called Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success (IDEAS).
She proved an influential activist. Tran filmed a documentary in 2007, Lost and Found, that highlighted the life of a Filipina undocumented college student; it played in film festivals and spread virally across the Internet. She contributed to Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out, a UCLA publication that gathered the stories of their subjects. That same year, just a couple of months after graduating from UCLA, Tran also testified before Congress in favor of the DREAM Act.
“Graduation for many of my friends isn’t a rite of passage to becoming a responsible adult,” Tram told a committee. “Rather, it is the last phase in which they can feel a sense of belonging as an American. As an American university student, my friends feel a part of an American community—that they are living out the American dream among their peers. But after graduation, they will be left behind by their American friends, as my friends are without the prospect of obtaining a job that will utilize the degree they’ve earned; my friends will become just another undocumented immigrant.”
Shortly after her testimony, immigration authorities arrested Tran’s family, placing them under house arrest. Only a massive outcry against the retaliatory action spared the Trans deportation. They remain in legal limbo.
Undeterred, Tran continued her activism. At Brown, she helped to create a group for undocumented students. And even in her increasingly infrequent return trips to Orange County, Tran helped her fellow Dreamers.
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“Last year, she attended a couple of our meetings,” Diaz says. “We were planning a graduation for our students and asked her if she wanted to be our keynote speaker. She declined because she thought it was more appropriate that someone other than her speak—but she asked if she could make a film about it.” Tran filmed every moment of that graduation in June at the Teamsters Local 951 Hall in Orange.
At the UCLA remembrance, people shared stories about Tran and Felix, screening Tran’s documentaries and vowing to not let her story disappear. Quickly, her friends set up a scholarship in the name of the two. For their part, the OC Dream Team returned home that night saddened, but also inspired. They held their own memorial service at Santa Ana College. On May 20, members participated in a rally in favor of the DREAM Act outside the federal building near UCLA. It stopped traffic for hours; one Dream Team member, Santa Ana College student (and legal resident) Jonathan Bibriesca, was among the nine protesters arrested for blocking traffic. Then, last Saturday, during the annual banquet for the Orange County Labor Federation, shortly after Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez presented an award, group members stood up and shouted, “Loretta, co-sponsor DREAM now!” Sanchez’s office did not respond to requests for comments for this story, but late Tuesday, just before the Weekly went to press, she finally agreed to co-sponsor the DREAM Act.
“It’s sad that Tam and Cinthya didn’t get to see the DREAM Act pass, but that just means we have to push harder,” Diaz says. “It’s not just our dream; it was theirs, too.”