Tam Tran, Brown student; fought for immigrant rights

Tam Ngoc Tran earned her bachelor’s degree from UCLA and was a doctoral student at Brown. Tam Ngoc Tran earned her bachelor’s degree from UCLA and was a doctoral student at Brown.
By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

At age 6, Tam Ngoc Tran and her family arrived in the United States. Her parents, refugees from Vietnam, had escaped by boat from their homeland several years before, during the Vietnam War, and had been rescued by the German Navy.

Hoping to be reunited with relatives in California, but knowing it would be difficult to get political asylum in the United States, they took their chances. But they lost, and were ordered to return to Germany. But Germany would not take them back.

The family stayed in California, where Ms. Tran grew up in Orange County, graduating from Santiago High School in Garden Grove, Calif., in 2001.

She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2006. She took time off to work before entering a doctoral program in American civilization studies at Brown University.

Ms. Tran was 24 in May 2007 when she stood before a congressional committee, advocating for passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which would have helped undocumented immigrant children gain citizenship when they earn a high school degree and complete two years of college or military service on US soil.

“Germany does not grant birthright citizenship, so on application forms when I come across the question that asks for my citizenship, I rebelliously mark ‘other’ and write in ‘the world,’ ’’ she testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law.

“But as of right now,’’ she said, “my national identity is not American, and even though I can’t be removed from American soil, I cannot become an American unless legislation changes.’’

Early Saturday morning, Ms. Tran, 27, a Brown University doctoral student, and one of her best friends, Cinthya Nathalie Felix Perez, 26, were in a car driven by another friend, Heather Lee, 28, when a pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction slammed into their vehicle on Route 3 in Trenton, Maine.

Perez, who was a graduate student in Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Ms. Tran was airlifted to Eastern Maine Medical Center, where she died shortly before 6 p.m.

Lee and the driver of the pickup truck sustained minor injuries, according to Maine State Police.

Police said speed was probably a factor, although charges have not been filed.

While working to advance the rights of undocumented immigrant students at UCLA, Ms. Tran met Perez, and they became fast friends. They went to rallies together, organized around their causes, and when they moved east, they talked nearly every day.

Although Ms. Tran boldly told her story to the Congressional committee three years ago, “she was very reserved,’’ Kyle de Beausset, a fellow activist and friend, said.

Ms. Tran and Perez, who moved to the United States at age 15 from her native Sinaloa, Mexico, made a great team, said mutual friend Susan Melgarejo of Los Angeles. They often tutored in the Los Angeles schools and were known in the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club for mentoring younger immigrants.

They also ran workshops in the schools, helping immigrants learn their options for attending higher education programs.

“They were both very inspirational, very admired by the youth,’’ Melgarejo said.

And their differences were well suited to one another, she said.

“Cinthya was very much a risk-taker, adventurous, always up for dealing with life’s challenges, very persevering, the definition of resilience,’’ Melgarejo said. Ms. Tran, she said, “was quiet — usually you think of an activist as being loud — but that wasn’t her. She was very humble, very chill.’’

She was happiest, family and friends said, when she had her hand on a camera, filming undocumented immigrants, whose stories she felt were important to chronicle.

The films she shot were, her brother Thien said, “also a way to express herself. She used it as a tool to tell about the plight about undocumented students.’’

As for her own story: “We felt like we belonged here in the USA, but we never got the permanent residence,’’ he said. “We never got to feel very secure about staying here. She just lived her whole life with that fear in the back of her mind.’’

Just days after her testimony before the House committee, her family was arrested. However, Ms. Tran and her supporters were able to get US Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, to help get them released to house arrest.

In addition to her brother, she leaves her father, Tuan Ngoc, and her mother, Loc Pham, of Garden Grove, Calif.

A memorial service for both women will be held at 3 p.m. today on the UCLA campus.