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The Golden Door

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Tam Tran: Eulogy for a DREAM Act activist

October 6th, 2010 by Djung Tran

If you keep up with immigration news, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about the DREAM Act, and the most recent — and unsuccesful — push to get it enacted.  DREAM stands for the “Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors.”  This post, however, is not about the DREAM Act itself, but about one young woman who would have been a direct beneficiary of the DREAM Act had it become law.

This may be old news to those who keep up with DREAM Act stories, but on May 15, 2010, two DREAM Act activists were killed in a car accident:  Tam Ngoc Tran, age 27, and her good friend, Cinthya Nathalie Felix Perez, age 26.  It is Tam Tran’s story, in particular, that spotlights the legal limbo that those who come to the United States as children and grow up calling the United States home can find themselves in, although luckily there are immigration lawyers available to assist in such cases before they come to such a tragic point.

I’ll call her Tam, as it feels strange to call someone else “Tran” when that’s my name too.

Tam’s parents, Tuan Ngoc Tran and Loc Thi Pham, escaped Vietnam only to become refugees in Germany after being picked up at sea by the German navy.  Tam and her brother were born in Germany, but because Germany does not grant birthright citizenship neither she nor her brother are German citizens.  When Tam was six, her family came to the United States to be near other relatives already living here.  Upon their arrival, her parents applied for asylum based upon their fear of being persecuted for their anti-Communist political views if they were to return to Vietnam.  Tam’s father had been forced to attend a “re-education” camp before he and Tam’s mother had fled Vietnam.  For those of you who don’t know what “re-education” means, let’s just say it’s not fun and games.

Tam’s parents were denied their asylum application, but eventually, after further lengthy proceedings, were granted withholding of deportation.  This meant they would not be sent back to Vietnam because they would probably be persecuted if returned there.   U.S. immigration authorities then tried to get the family to return to Germany, but Germany refused to issue them visas.  After all, they weren’t German citizens.  So the family was effectively in legal limbo:  they did not have permanent resident status, but they were definitely documented aliens — Immigration knew exactly who they were and where they lived, and issued them work authorization documents on a regular basis.

So Tam grew up in Garden Grove, California, graduated from Santiago High School, then UCLA with honors, and then went on to doctoral program at Brown University.  She was a filmmaker and an activist, testifying on May 18, 2007, before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, in support of the DREAM Act.

In what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) claims is a random coincidence, three days after Tam’s congressional testimony about her family’s plight, ICE agents staged a pre-dawn raid on her family home, arresting her parents and her brother for being “fugitives from justice.”  Tam wasn’t home at the time but if she had been she, too, would have been arrested.  As far as I can tell, ICE is still trying to deport the family back to Germany.  There is no hint of any criminal actions on the part of any family members.  ICE’s goal appears to merely be to clean house — that is, to deport any deportables and check them off their list.  An ICE spokesperson said that, before, Germany had refused to issue visas when the Trans themselves had made the request; this time, the U.S. government would be making the request, which would more likely result in approval.  A judicious use of immigration resources, indeed.

In researching Tam’s story, I came across a tribute to her on the OC Weekly, “A DREAM Act Undeterred.” Although I learned a lot about Tam and her hopes and dreams from this piece, there is one bit that I have to quibble with.  The article characterized her as undocumented.  She was not undocumented.  She just (just!) did not have permanent resident status.  The only thing that her parents might be guilty of in terms of violating U.S. immigration law was bringing their family to the United States on visitor visas in order to apply for political asylum.  Once here, though, her parents obeyed all the immigration laws and followed all the immigration procedures in their quest for asylum.  The end result was that they did not obtain permanent resident status, but neither were they actually ordered deported.  They remained in the United States on the U.S. government’s explicit permission.  Tam was not an “illegal alien.”  She was allowed to stay in the United States because there was no where that she could safely be sent back to.  But without permanent resident status many of the avenues of support, financial and otherwise, for bright young students and budding young professionals like herself were simply not available to her.

Not everyone who would qualify for relief under the DREAM Act is as sympathetic a figure as Tam.  But her story is an undeniable part of the DREAM Act conversation, and her death at a young age is a loss to America.  I never knew Tam, but I believe that she would have done great things in this country, whether or not she ever become a permanent resident or, eventually, the ultimate goal, a citizen.  I think America would have been proud to claim her as one of its own.

Djung Tran, Esq.

Tran Law Associates

834 Chestnut Street #206
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 690-1933

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2 Responses to “Tam Tran: Eulogy for a DREAM Act activist”

  1. Bob Hurley says:


    Thanks for sending this story. The story reinforces my belief that immigrants provide our counntry with incredible resources and strength. People who overcome all those adversities to come here are those that we need to build a stronger and more just country I have been working though my local parish to try to get our representative, John Adler to support the Dream Act and immigration reform including a path to citizenship. If you know any other avenues to support this effort, please let me know. I would be glad to help. My own granparents come here from Ireland in 1880 before there were any restrictions on immigration.

    • Djung Tran says:


      You remind us of a well-known but often overlooked truth: that America is a nation of immigrants, whether you’re a first generation immigrant, or your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or even further back, were immigrants. Each wave of immigrants has faced some form of animosity and xenophobia from more established Americans, and yet each wave has also helped to make this nation the diverse, entrepreneurial, and vibrant place it is today.

      As far as I know, PICC, the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, is the nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization that is working most on the DREAM Act in the Philadelphia area. I’ll put you in touch with them. I’m sure they’ll be happy to have you on board.

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