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Undocumented Student Activist Arrested

By Joseph Pimentel/Asianjournal.com

LOS ANGELES — The Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) is asking for immigrant community support after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities arrested a 24-year-old Vietnamese immigration advocate and her family.

Tam Tran, a former honor student graduate and Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, and her family were arrested October 8 by ICE agents at their home in Orange County. ICE officials charged Tran and her family with being fugitives from justice despite being immigrants seeking political asylum in the US for the past 18 years. They were released the next day with monitoring devices.

“Many in our community are scared to come out and lend their voices to the immigration debate because of ICE actions like these,” said APALC’s Immigration Policy Advocate Daniel Huang. “Such heavy handed tactics do nothing to solve our immigration problems and only serve to hurt families, refugees, and those in greatest need of assistance.”

Tran’s journey has been well documented. She represents one of thousands of undocumented students and children of illegal immigrants.

Tran has been outspoken in her efforts before State and US House legislators for the passage of the Federal DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act that would allow children of undocumented to become US citizens if they meet certain criteria. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the State DREAM Act that would have allowed undocumented students access to school financial aid.  Schwarzenegger said it would strain the State’s General Financial Aid Fund.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that 1.5 million Asians in the US are undocumented. Of that number, the National Federation of Filipino American Association (NaFFAA) estimated more than 500,000 hail from the Philippines.

Tran’s Plight

“I am lucky…to share my story and give voice to thousands of other undocumented students who cannot,” testified Tran’s during a House hearing.

Since her graduation from UCLA in 2006, Tran has embarked on a series of speaking engagements to educate people and legislators about the plight of undocumented students.

Recently, Tran was one of many undocumented students that testified before the US House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law last May.

According to the House transcripts, Tran’s parents fled Vietnam during the Vietnam war. A German ship rescued Tran’s parents at sea and brought them to Germany where Tam and her 21-year-old brother was born. Her family then migrated to Southern California seeking political asylum. After a lengthy battle, they lost the asylum case. The Immigration court ordered her family to be deported to Germany.

However, Germany does not grant birthright citizenship. German officials did not grant the family a visa. The family stayed in the US and continued to seek political asylum.

In 2001, the Bureau of Immigration court ruled that the father had suffered persecution in Vietnam for his political beliefs. Tran and members of her family were able to obtain Government identification and work permits from immigration officials.

Meanwhile, Tran continued to succeed in school. She assimilated into the fabric of American culture.

“I am culturally an American… I grew up watching Speed Racer and Mighty Mouse (cartoons)  every Saturday morning,” said Tran.

She graduated with honors at UCLA and was accepted to a Ph.D. program in Cultural Studies. UCLA also awarded Tran a department fellowship and minority fellowship.

“But the challenges I faced as an undocumented college student began to surface once again,” said Tran in her testimony.

Despite the fellowship and scholarships, the hefty price tag of $50,000 along with living expenses thwarted Tran’s educational dreams. Her undocumented status did not allow her State financial aid.

“When you’re in my situation you have to, or learn to, or are forced to make compromises.”

Tran began to work as a film editor but also encountered problems. Three days before she testified in front of Congress, her work informed her that it would be her last day at work until she renews her work permit.

“Every year, I must apply for a renewal but never have I received it on time,” said Tram. “This means every year around this month (May), I lose the job that I have.”

“But it’s okay, because I’ve been used to this – to losing things I have worked hard for. Not just this job but also the value of my college degree and the American identity I once possessed as a child.”

Outspoken

Chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee US House Representative Zoe Lofgren accused ICE officials of “witness intimidation” and trying to silence Tran and her family.

Huang said the timing of Tran and her family’s arrest is suspicious.

Three days before her arrest, Tam was featured on a USA today article, “Children caught in the immigration crossfire” about the number of undocumented children that are raised in the US and eventually, threatened with deportation to their home country.

“Of course, we can’t say for certain [that Tam was arrested because she spoke out],” said Huang.  “She’s been here, her family checks in yearly to immigration officials. How can anyone interpret them as criminals? We’re very suspicious.”

Phone calls to ICE authorities were not returned as of press time.

Huang said looking at the bigger picture, this arrest might affect the number of undocumented immigrants to keep silent.

“That’s something that we’re very concerned about,” said Huang. “This immigration debate and policy issues rely on the voice that is most affected. We don’t want to see anyone’s speech silenced through this kind of intimidation tactic.”

“Those in our community who are judgmental about illegal immigrants often don’t realize that they include asylum denials, visa overstays, and immigrants who simply have no legal avenue for staying here,” added Sara Sadhwani, APALC’s immigrant rights project director. “We hope the Asian American community will unite in support of the Tran family and their painful ordeal.”

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