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Education Trends

Undocumented Education: A DREAM Act Deferred

DREAM Act Activists Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix remembered for their work to help undocumented students.

May 27, 2010

It's been a little over a week since I received an email with one of those subject headings you never want to see; "sad news," it began, followed by a name, "Tam Tran". Inside, was a link to an obituary for Tran and her friend and fellow activist, Cinthya Felix. They were killed on May 15th, in an early morning accident in Maine, when a pickup truck crossed the center divide and hit their car.

Tam Tran was 27. Cinthya Felix was 26. They were living up to their immigrant parents' hopes for a better life for their children. Both had overcome poverty and language challenges and excelled in high school. They went on to graduate from UCLA -- with honors -- and were accepted into graduate programs at two of the nation's top colleges; Tran was pursuing a Ph.D. in American civilization at Brown University; Felix was studying for a Master's in Public Health at Columbia and hoped to become a doctor.

But, for all their determination and academic success, they knew there was no chance of finding jobs in their fields when they graduated. Tran and Felix were undocumented.

Let's take a collective breath here. This isn't about politics; it's a memorial for two young women, who were leaders for a generation of students facing the same educational barriers, and whose lives were cut short.

Out from Underground

I never met them in person, but Tam Tran and I emailed often two years ago, when my graduate students at UC Berkeley were reporting on a lawsuit aimed at overturning AB 540, a California law that allows anyone who attends a California high school for at least three years, and graduates, to pay in-state tuition at state universities and colleges. Nine states have similar laws, a few others specifically ban it.

AB 540 made it possible for Tran and Felix to afford UCLA, where they met and were part of an underground organization that helped undocumented students by directing them to private scholarships and supportive faculty. Eventually, they took the organization to other college campuses, and learned the risks of going public.

A Dream Confronts Reality

It happened in 2007, when Tran testified before the House immigration subcommittee in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The bill, which has enjoyed strong bipartisan sponsorship, would create a path to citizenship for undocumented students if they earn a high school degree and complete two years of college or military service.

Three days after she testified, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided Tran's home, taking her brother and parents into custody. ICE officials said later on -- after members of Congress intervened -- that it was a coincidence; they said the raid was planned weeks earlier when they mistakenly thought her family had violated its refugee status.

Tran herself had an exceptionally ambiguous status.

Living in Limbo

Tran's parents were so-called "boat people" who fled Vietnam after Saigon fell, and after her father had been held in a re-education camp for his anti-communist activities. They were rescued at sea by the German navy and Tran was born in Germany, a country with no birthright citizenship. She was six when her family immigrated to the U.S., but, legally, Tran had no home. When she died in Maine earlier this month, she died without a country.

What's Legal for Illegal Immigrants?

The United States has such a deeply rooted tradition of public education -- dating back to Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Constitution -- that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1982 granted all children living in this country, legally or not, access to a free public education from elementary school through high school.

The case is "Plyler v. Doe". And, in a variation of the United Negro College Fund slogan, "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste," the Justices wrote, "Illiteracy is an enduring disability. The inability to read and write will handicap the individual deprived of a basic education each and every day of his life."

The high court also said, in essence, that children shouldn't have to pay for the sins of their parents. But Tran and Felix didn't see their parents as sinners. When my friend Bruce Fuller, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, interviewed Felix for a brief titled "The Cultural Strengths of Latino Families," he asked where she found the wherewithal to succeed against the odds. "'It's my parents,' she said. 'They have sacrificed so much to give us the opportunity to go to school, to grow.'"

I forwarded the email to Bruce, the one that said "sad news," in the subject line. He responded quickly with disbelief. "This is so terribly sad. I heard them both speak on a panel at Brown last year. They were so dynamic, hard driving, clear. Seems so unfair, they were so young."


--Kathy Baron, Features Producer & Research Editor, Edutopia

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