Sometime in February on a very cold snowy night I trudged over to a Mexican restaurant at the invitation of my compadre Romeo. An old friend from undergrad was passing through and he thought I should meet her. Even before the beer arrived I had taken a liking to Tam Tran. Super-smart, focused, she was 27 years old and working toward her Ph.D in American Studies at Brown. She had brought along Cinthya Felix, an Angeleno working on her master’s degree at Columbia.
Tam was in the city to make a presentation about the Dream Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress which would create a path to citizenship for certain undocumented students who were brought to this country as children. Her presentation included a video—she had a yearning to become a filmmaker—a portrait of undocumented students, Dreamers, who are eligible for the Dream Act.
Undocumented immigrants are often described as “living in the shadows” and this video, she explained, was meant to bring them into the light, and show the public, and possible supporters, what an undocumented student looks like, more or less like their kids. Three years earlier she made the case for the Dream Act before a congressional panel, days later ICE agents raided her home and took her parents into custody (according to news reports, they were later placed on house arrest).
We headed over to a jazz joint and Tam explained the German navy had rescued her family at sea after they fled Vietnam. Tam and a sibling were born in Germany but were ineligible for German citizenship. The family migrated to the U.S. where they were later denied political asylum. Her mother was a manicurist, and her parents raised their children on not much more than what she lived on at Brown. I remember she told me how she marveled at her mother’s ability to stretch a dollar while making sure her kids never felt ‘poor.’ She shared the story with remarkable dispassion, direct and steady in her delivery.
Unless something major happened in Washington, Tam and Cinthya, who was born in Mexico and graduated from an L.A. high school, would be ineligible to work in the U.S., with a Phd and a master’s degree. These two young women had no guarantees that their hard work would pay off, no promises, no security. But they kept moving forward, sticking to their path. Regardless of what you might think about illegal immigration or the Dream Act, such commitment to working toward a future through an extremely uncertain present is truly impressive.
They dealt with this uncertainty by being as “out” as possible, by speaking out and making videos and telling this country who they are. You can see Tam and Cinthya in this video.
I decided to produce a television segment about the strategy of encouraging other Dreamers to “come out.” Tam and I exchanged emails about the idea and we tried to connect by phone but she was so busy with school and her activism and traveling.
On May 15, at 1 a.m. she and Cinthya were traveling near Trenton Maine when a driver crossed into their lane and struck them head-on. Cinthya died at the scene, Tam was airlifted to a hospital. She died before getting there.