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Undocumented: students in ‘limbo’

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tam Tran GS did not vote on Election Day.

Though she volunteered for the Obama campaign and followed the presidential race enthusiastically, she avoided her colleagues’ questions about visiting the polls that day.

“It would have taken too long to explain why I didn’t vote,” she said.

Tran first arrived in the United States at age six and holds a degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in American literature and culture – but in the eyes of the government, she is not an American. She is an undocumented immigrant.

Fearing political persecution, Tran’s father and aunt fled Vietnam by boat before Tran was born. Her father was later rescued by the German Navy and her aunt by the American Navy. Tran and her younger brother Thien were born in Germany, but moved to the United States when they were children.

The family believed that Tran’s aunt, who received legal status in the Unites States after being rescued by the Navy, could sponsor them. They applied for political asylum, but were denied in 1997. In 2001, an immigration board found that her family could not return to Vietnam for fear of persecution and ordered them deported to Germany. But when her family tried to apply for German visas, they were denied.

Because they have nowhere to be sent, Tran’s family members have a pseudo-legal status that allows them to hold work permits and Social Security. Though she is unable to vote, Tran has not been afraid to involve herself in political activities. “I always felt really safe,” she said. “I have nowhere to be deported to.”

Last semester, Tran and several undergraduate students formed the Brown Immigrants’ Rights Coalition to speak out about immigrants’ rights issues and the challenges faced by undocumented students.

“A lot of these kids are now grown up. They’re teenagers like me, and they are sort of in limbo,” said VyVy Trinh ’11, co-founder of the group, whose parents also immigrated from Vietnam. “I’ve seen how arbitrary U.S. immigration policy is, depending on the year or even the month in which you’ve come.”

Under the current system, the legal status of thousands of other undocumented youth are tied to their parents’ cases, and few paths to citizenship exist for them. “There’s no form for them to fill out or line to stand in,” Tran said.

Many young adults are not even affected by their legal status until they become adults, according to Tran. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe in 1982 that undocumented immigrants have a right to public education from kindergarten through 12th grade. An estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools every year, according to the Urban Institute.

“But if you’re undocumented,” Tran said, “how do you become a legal adult?”

Following high school graduation, Tran was able to pursue a college education thanks to a California law that grants in-state tuition to any student who graduates from a state high school, regardless of the student’s immigration status. BIRC plans to lobby for similar legislation in Rhode Island and encourage students to apply to private universities that have an easier time offering financial aid to undocumented students, said Gabriela Camargo ’11, another member of BIRC.

“Universities like Brown offer very attractive financial aid packages that are often perfect for undocumented immigrants who are not eligible for federal grants or loans,” Camargo said. “Without equal access to education, you’re creating a subclass of people that have no way of getting out of their situation and no way of finding employers that can sponsor them.”

BIRC members also hope to serve as a support group for undocumented immigrants who might not be aware of the options available to them, or that other students face similar challenges. It was at UCLA that Tran first began to meet other undocumented students confronting similar challenges, she said.

“Growing up, I didn’t know anybody,” Tran said. “This isn’t something that people just talk about.”

While an undergrad, Tran became a vocal advocate for citizenship reform after joining an on-campus support group for undocumented students, and getting involved in the California Dream Network, a statewide association of college organizations dedicated to immigration reform. In 2007 she testified before the House immigration subcommittee in support of the DREAM Act, which would provide the children of illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship if they earn a high school degree and complete two years of college or military service.

“For the first time it gives someone the opportunity to earn their citizenship,” Tran said. “You grow up being told that if you work hard, you can succeed. A lot of undocumented students’ parents told them that if they worked hard and got good grades, they would become citizens.”

The bill failed, but Tran said she remained hopeful that it may one day pass, especially now that President Barack Obama, a supporter of the act, is in office.

Tran continues to advocate for immigration reform at Brown, where she is a graduate student in the Department of American Civilization. She and other BIRC members want to see the University provide information to undocumented youth about how to apply to Brown without a Social Security Number, Trinh said.

“It’s the idea of what it means to be an American,” Tran said. “Are you American if you were born here, but spent your entire life outside of the country? Are you more of an American if you have a Ph.D. in American culture?”

Though Tran said she considers herself a citizen of the world, she still thinks about the rights that come with a U.S. citizen’s passport. “I spend a lot of time looking at Google Maps,” she said. “I look at places I can’t go to right now.”

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