Vision, Voice, Courage, Change: In remembrance of John Delloro and Tam Tran

Vision, Voice, Courage, Change: In remembrance of John Delloro and Tam Tran

For a week, I’ve sat down and opened up the same document –an article I’m completing on Asian American organizing and immigrant rights.  Each time, I find myself frustrated and unable to write and end up sitting at the computer blankly staring at the screen.  In my mind, I hear John Delloro’s voice –asking Asian American students and activists to make a choice, the right choice, to be part of a coalition with other People of Color in the fight for justice, fair wages, and equality.  I think about Tam Tran and her fearlessness, when fighting to defend the rights of undocumented students like herself, and her willingness to risk everything so that undocumented youth could have a path to citizenship via the Dream Act.  John and Tam, gone too soon. John’s life cut short when his heart could no longer contain his effervescent spirit and tireless soul.  Tam and her fellow Dream Activist friend Cinthya Felix Perez lives cut short due to an irresponsible driver who drove across lanes and into oncoming traffic and collided with the car that Tam and Cinthya were traveling in. I realize now, that my inability to write this past two weeks is due in large part to the fact that I simultaneously mourn the loss and celebrate the lives of two amazing people who represent the heart and soul of what Asian American organizing is about. John is a man I considered a friend, mentor, and inspiration. Tam, a young woman I knew only by reputation and common connections. The lives of both John and Tam remind each of us that to be heard, we need to use our voices. Change happens when we commit ourselves to using our lives, our networks, our resources to do something.

Reflecting on the lives and work of John and Tam reminds me of how much work needs to be done to bring attention to the lives of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants in the United States.  For those of us paying attention to the news, it is impossible to miss the persistent attacks from the State of Arizona on immigrants and people of color. The recent passage of SB 1070 into Arizona law makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime. This law also gives police broad power to detain anyone ‘suspected’ of being ‘illegal.’  In short, this law makes racial profiling legal and enforcement is at the discretion of law enforcement. According to Arizona Governor, Jan Brewer, “We have to trust our law enforcement.” [i] The real question is, “trust law enforcement to do what?”

As the daughter of a retired police officer, I have a healthy respect for police and the civic duties that they are asked to perform. When asked to enforce a law, it is important that there be little ambiguity. Drivers understand that if the speed limit is 65 miles per hour, if one chooses to drive at 80 miles per hour that is against the law. The police are enforcing an unambiguous and measurable parameter.  Policing who is ‘an immigrant,’ documented or not, is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is the racialized stereotyping of who is an immigrant and who is not. Further complicating the issue is the media driven, false reports on the impacts that immigrants –particularly undocumented immigrants have on the United States economy, jobs, and social services.  While the media portrays groups of immigrants ‘leaching’ U.S. resources, policy reports indicate otherwise, even during economically vulnerable times.  In a report commissioned by the Migration Policy Institute, “In the long run, immigrants do not reduce native employment rates, but they do increase productivity and hence average income.  This finding is consistent with broad existing literature on the impact of immigration to the United States.”[ii]  Fear, xenophobia, coupled with the accompanied nationalism that occurs particularly during economic downturn leads to public policy that does not respond to social scientific research, but instead the unsubstantiated fears that spread like wildfire during tumultuous times.   What the Arizona law, in addition to the news and media coverage of immigration highlights is the ways that economic nationalism plays into the scapegoating of immigrants.   In the contemporary moment, the word “undocumented immigrant” has become synonymous with “Mexican.”

While some on the liberal left may argue that this is a political tactic by conservatives, in truth –the false homogenization of immigrant as Mexican is a bipartisan hegemonic project that occurs for different reasons.  While the largest number of unauthorized migrants stems from Mexico, unauthorized entry is not a uniquely Mexican or Latin American phenomena. Estimates by the Department of Homeland Security also include migrants from India, Korea, Philippines, and China.[iii].  The US Census Population Survey (2006) shows great diversity in immigrant sending countries. Mexico, China, India, Philippines, and El Salvador are the top five .[iv]  The conservative pundits focus heavily on Mexican migration in order to promote the fundamental belief the undocumented immigrants are at fault for the economic downfall of the United States. Lost from their analysis is the fact that economic analysis shows that undocumented immigration is currently responsible for maintaining the US Social Security system. These workers put money into a social security system that they can never draw from. Analysis also obscures the fact that US foreign and domestic policy are largely responsible for both the economic conditions that force people to migrate in search of work, and a backlog on issuance of visas to allow for legal migration. Furthermore, the signing of free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA gutted the economic infrastructure of numerous countries, dismantling small businesses and the economic livelihood of their citizens and creating the catalyst for migration. The lack of US enforcement of Immigration and Reform Act of 1986 provisions governing corporate behavior has left business hiring practices largely unregulated, thus allowing companies such as Tyson Chicken to actively recruit undocumented immigrants to work in their factories. Obscuring these facts means that Mexicans are the aggressors, as opposed to the victims of larger global economic trends. Furthermore, corporations can use this animosity to divide different ethnic and cultural groups and pit them against one another in order to continue exploitation.

Liberal commentators, pundits, and academics address the larger structural factors but largely ignore the great diversity encompassed in the word “immigrant.” Focusing heavily on a very Marxist dualistic orientation of workers vs. owners, or the exploited vs. the oppressors –they ignore that today’s immigrants are from all over the globe. Unacknowledged are the very unique conditions, experiences, and histories that both connect and separate immigrant groups from one another. This failure to acknowledge the histories and experiences of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe often translates into an inability to understand the larger structural and systemic failures that lead to the continued capital exploitation of migrants. For organizations, such as labor unions, working on social justice issues –this oversite leads to an inability to adequately organize their constituencies. It creates limitations for coalition development and an inability to develop nuanced social movements. These omissions of experience mean that we cannot adequately address or develop policies that help all workers, immigrants, and communities.

When looking at the need for a path to citizenship for undocumented students, we often fail to comprehend that these youth entered the United States before the age of 5, were educated in the United States, and have been and will be great contributors to the United States. We see this in the case of Eric Balderas, the high school valedictorian attending Harvard University on full scholarship, who faced deportation when he tried to use a Mexican Consulate card and Harvard ID at the airport.  However, the false homogenization of experiences means that we don’t understand the experiences of youth like Tam Tran.  Tam a graduate of UCLA and doctoral student in American Studies at Brown University was a woman without a country. As numerous sources have noted,  Tam’s father fled Vietnam by boat before she was born and was rescued by the German navy.  Tam and her brother were born in Germany and hoped their aunt, who escaped at the same time as their father, but acquired residence in the United States, could sponsor them for citizenship.  However, in 1997 the family was denied political asylum and the immigration board ruled in 2001 that they could not return to Vietnam because of risk of political persecution. As a result, they were supposed to be deported back to Germany –but Germany refused to grant them entry leaving the family’s citizenship status in question. [v] How do we create a dialogue on immigration that provides a more nuanced and complex portrait of what it means to be an immigrant, or undocumented?

Working with John Delloro and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, I’ve learned over the years that the fight for social justice, living wage, and unions is complex. Lost within the discourse on immigrant incorporation are the experiences of API workers. In geographic regions such as Los Angeles, API populations have grown exponentially. Chain migration to the United States means the group of immigrants that were once largely professional migrants, has shifted to a group of workers populating the service sector. Often stereotyped as docile and compliant, unions and companies alike tend to overlook or ignore the potential power of organizing Asian Pacific Islander immigrants. When organizations do attempt to unionize and mobilize these groups, they are often unsuccessful because of their inability to understand the very specific cultural protocols and histories that should be adhered to. Business as usual by progressive organizations does not lead to greater participation in organizing. Some unions find themselves at loose ends, not understanding how to address the needs of API workers.  John understood this. On the one hand, he knew that Asian Pacific Islander workers, students, and activists needed to use their voices in service of social justice –but he also knew that institutions needed to fundamentally change in order to meet the needs of their constituents. What made John an important member of the labor movement was his vision of change and his commitment to working to make that change happen. He motivated his students, colleagues, and friends to own their voices and stories. He instilled a sense of urgency in the importance of telling stories in order to combat stereotypes and to create connections among people. He advocated for the acknowledgement of the contributions of Asian Pacific Islander workers. He worked tirelessly to bring attention to the exploitation these immigrants faced. More importantly, he helped developed coalitions with other progressive organizations in order to provide a more nuanced form of organizing that helped immigrants understand each others experiences and stories.

Vision, Voice, Courage, Change.  I will always be inspired by John and Tam for reminding me to commit myself to these principles. Whether the pursuit is academic or activist (they don’t need to be mutually exclusive) it is important that all of us work to disentangle fiction from fact, to educate ourselves so that we can speak truth to power. I hope that each of us commits ourselves to being agents of change.

John and Tam, Rest in Peace. You are loved and missed.

[i] Archibold, R. (2010).. “Arizona Enacts Stringent Law on Immigration” in The New York Times. April 23, 2010

[ii] Peri, G. (2010) “The Impact of Immigrants in Recession and Economic Expansion.”  Migration Policy Institute.

[iii] Hoefer, M. Rytina, N, & Baker, B. (2010). “ Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2009.”

[iv] Center for Immigration Study, Census Population Survey 2005.


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