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Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition: A decade in review

BIRC builds legacy supporting undocumented, immigrant students

By and
Staff Writers
Friday, December 6, 2019

Founded in 2009, the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition has spent the last decade leading student efforts to advocate for progress on issues such as the passage of the DREAM Act and the University’s accessibility for undocumented students.

With the arrival of its tenth anniversary at the end of this year, alums and current BIRC members reflected on the organization’s evolution and its legacy in enacting change within the University, all while striving to honor the values of its founder Tam Tran GS, who passed away in a car accident in 2010.

The founding

Alongside VyVy Trinh ’11 MD’17,  Tran founded BIRC to advocate for the rights of immigrant and undocumented students on campus and nationwide. BIRC was built upon the idea that “no human being is illegal,” and it demands “justice and equality for all humans irrespective of immigration status, gender, sexuality, economic status, race or other forms of oppression,” according to its official mission statement. Trinh, whose family came to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam, wanted to lead BIRC because she had been interested in issues of social justice, racism and inequality from a young age.

“In the U.S. this intersects with immigration in painfully obvious ways,” Trinh said, adding that growing up in an immigrant family also influenced her decision to lead the group.

Prior to BIRC’s creation, students on campus still discussed immigrant rights and migrant justice issues “but in smaller circles,” Trinh said. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, anti-immigrant sentiments rose, which made students feel “criminalized,” she added.

Tran began the effort to form and establish BIRC because, as an undocumented student herself, she “always knew that at every institution, there are students living in the shadows the way she had to,” Trinh said.

Tran’s family sought safe haven in the United States because they feared political persecution at home in Vietnam. Though they were denied political asylum into the country, they remained in the United States as undocumented immigrants. Tran was only six years old when she arrived in the United States for the first time.

Prior to her arrival at the University, Tran studied as an undergraduate at the University of California ­at Los Angeles, where she advocated for immigrant rights.

“She saw herself as privileged because she made it to Brown, and she used that relative safety to advocate for people who didn’t have that,” Trinh said.

Tran later received the attention of Congress after she testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee in favor of the DREAM Act, as The Herald previously reported. The bipartisan DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, is a legislative proposal to provide the children of undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship if they earned a high school degree and then completed two years of college or military service or were employed for three years. “She was constantly advocating for the DREAM Act, even as she approached the age where she might not qualify,” Trinh added.

In its earliest days, passing the DREAM Act was one of BIRC’s main goals, said Alejo Stark ’13, a member of BIRC from 2010 to 2013. A similar bill passed in the House this past June, though it has not yet been voted on in the Senate.

“Our goals became more focused and clarified over time,” Trinh said. “We thought of ourselves as plugging in for advocacy for the DREAM Act. We wanted the (University) to make a public statement explicitly saying it would not discriminate against undocumented immigrants.”

Then-President Ruth Simmons later offered public support for the DREAM Act. “She was one of the first Ivy League presidents” to do so, Stark said, describing her decision to speak out as a proud moment for BIRC.

While Tran’s death in a 2010 car accident devastated BIRC, the organization strove to continue its work, later establishing a scholarship in Tran’s name to support undocumented students who planned to attend college.

BIRC also tried to honor Tran’s legacy by focusing on prominent immigration issues that affected both the University specifically as well as immigrants nationwide. “It was always a collective struggle,” Stark said. “We put at the forefront a critique of capitalism and showed how it relates to the migrant justice movement.”

BIRC re-emerges in a new political era

After many of its original members graduated, BIRC fell into a state of relative inactivity during the 2014-15 school year. “It kind of faded out for a bit,” said Jasmine Ruiz ’20.5, a current member of BIRC and a former photo editor for The Herald, referring to the two lives of the institution as “BIRC 1.0 and BIRC 2.0.” The group, Ruiz elaborated, “has always been non-hierarchical, which makes it hard to hold people accountable.”

Re-established in 2015, members of BIRC resumed their work with the 2016 presidential election underway. After President Donald Trump’s election, which promised heavy changes and more punitive immigration measures, the group came closer together, Ruiz said. “There was definitely a sense of fear for the safety of a lot of our loved ones, and we found community with each other because we felt that the issue was very personal and close to home,” she added.

As the organization once again became reconnected with the University community, their goals included spreading awareness about immigration issues, raising money for various nonprofits and advocating for undocumented students on campus.

In May 2016, BIRC held a meeting with Provost Richard Locke P’18 and Dean of the College Maud Mandel, in which they presented research they had conducted on “the experience of (undocumented) students on campus, the problems with the way students were being admitted (as part of the international rather than domestic pool) and the need for attention to these areas,” wrote Marisa Quinn, chief of staff to the Provost, in an email to The Herald.

In response to this, the University revised their approach “to admitting and supporting undocumented and DACA students,” Quinn wrote. Due to the efforts of BIRC, the University altered its financial aid policy and began considering undocumented students as domestic applicants so that they could receive financial aid.

“This was a very constructive partnership that led to a deeper understanding of the distinct issues faced by undocumented and DACA students and helped the University develop a far more robust and targeted way to address those needs,” Quinn wrote.

The demands BIRC presented to the University in May 2016 originated in a class about immigrant social movements taught by Kevin Escudero, an assistant professor of American Studies and ethnic studies, who played an integral role in creating the Undocumented Student Initiative, as The Herald previously reported.

“BIRC has been at the forefront of ensuring that the University is aware of the needs of the undocumented student community at Brown,” Escudero said. Escudero said that BIRC spreads “awareness and visibility to the ways in which immigration status impacts their lives and also the lives of the people in their community.”

Some of BIRC’s campaigns have included creating photo booths, as well as conducting teach-ins to spread awareness about immigration issues. BIRC uses such programming to challenge “some crazy depictions of the way that migrants to the United States are (presented),” said John Lopez-Aldas ’19, a BIRC member from 2015 to 2019.

BIRC also worked closely with the Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center center to move “toward long term structural solutions as opposed to bandaids” to serve undocumented students at the University and in the larger Providence area, Ruiz added. BIRC’s advocacy led to the creation of the Undocumented Student Program as an initiative of the U-FLi Center in fall 2016. The program provides advising and leadership development for undocumented students and programming for the campus community on migration issues.

Recently, BIRC has focused on building relationships with local grassroots organizations doing “the same kind of work,” such as the Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance. AMOR provides “community support … for victims of hate crimes and state-sponsored violence,” with a particular focus on aiding immigrant populations, according to their website. “We threw a Fuck Borders party and donated the proceeds,” Ruiz said.

When reflecting on BIRC’s decade of work, Ruiz sees the group’s future as pushing for equality for immigrants on a larger scale.

“Generally (we want to) work toward a future where we don’t have to worry about borders or criminalizing folks,” Ruiz said. “Especially when a lot of people fleeing violence in their country are fleeing because of U.S. interventions.”

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