Mary C. Waters is the PVK Professor of Arts and Sciences and the John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. She was the chair of the 2015 National Academy of Sciences panel on The Integration of Immigrants into American Society.
One of the few things Americans actually agree on these days is that immigrants who did not arrive here legally are a problem. Of the 11 million immigrants without legal status, more than 60 percent have lived here for at least 10 years, putting down deep roots. These immigrants are caught in a limbo where they live and work as Americans with no way to acquire legal status. Those who oppose them believe they make a mockery of our laws, living with impunity in a society that never agreed to let them in, using false documents and identities to hide from law enforcement.
On June 22, 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas published an explosive article in the New York Times Magazine outing himself as an undocumented immigrant. His new book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” opens a window for readers into how living without papers is possible, both difficult and commonplace, and too often heartbreaking.
Vargas is far from the average undocumented immigrant: He has seen a lot of great fortune in his life. But he shares a lot with others lacking legal status. One stroke of very bad luck — his arrival in the United States without legal permission — created three conditions that characterize life for the undocumented: lying, passing and hiding. The undocumented lie to get jobs and identification papers, they pass as legal residents or citizens in everyday life, and they hide from any situation or person who could unmask them and turn them in for deportation. Lying proved particularly hard for Vargas because his chosen profession — journalism — is dedicated to uncovering the truth. Eventually the strain proved too great and he decided to share the truth, quite movingly, first in the newspaper and then in this autobiography.
Aside from his undocumented status, Vargas’s story is an American dream of rags to riches. Born to poor parents in the rural Philippines, he was raised by his single mother. When he was 12, his family hired a “coyote” to take him to his grandparents in California. While his grandparents provided a loving home, he desperately missed his mother and tried to work hard to justify her great sacrifice in letting him go. He excelled in school, embraced American culture and spent hours imitating actors on TV to get rid of his accent.
At age 16, when Vargas applied for a learner’s permit, he learned that his green card was fake and that he was in the country illegally. The clerk at the DMV told him his papers were false and whispered that he should not come back. She did not report him to anyone. In today’s harsh environment young people in a similar predicament might not be so lucky. Shocked and hurt, Vargas tried even harder to succeed, hoping to somehow earn his citizenship. He was a brilliant and active student, writing for the school paper and impressing the principal and the superintendent of the school district with his talent and drive. With these mentors in on his secret, he found a full scholarship to San Francisco State, where he won consecutive internships at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. He lost the offer of an internship at the Seattle Times because he told the truth about his legal status, so when the opportunity of a job at The Washington Post arrived, he lied and checked the citizen box on his application, successfully passing with false papers.
A few years later, when Vargas shared the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Post team that covered the Virginia Tech shooting, he went to the bathroom and cried, convinced that this new attention would lead to his being found out. But his luck held, and he remained hiding in plain sight. Later, Vargas left The Post and began writing for the Huffington Post and the New Yorker. But the lying was taking a huge emotional toll, and the more successful he was, the more isolated and awful he felt. Finally, he decided in 2011 to “come out” as undocumented, hoping his fame and powerful pen might protect him against deportation.
After publishing his Times story, Vargas became an advocate and activist for the undocumented, founding an organization called Define American. In 2014 the Border Patrol detained him after he traveled to Texas to protest the Obama administration’s detention of unaccompanied children. However, being well-connected, he was released following interventions by the Filipino government and high-ranking Americans.
Under the Trump administration, Vargas and other noncriminal undocumented people face a vastly increased risk of detention and deportation. The administration has made it clear that anyone living in the country illegally, even for a very long time, and no matter how upstanding, is fair game for removal, releasing immigration agents from Obama-era rules instructing them to focus on criminals.
Despite these changes, Vargas continues to speak out around the country and write for national publications. He testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and in February 2017, Rep. Nancy Pelosi invited Vargas as her guest to President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress, a risky move in the eyes of many of his supporters. The publication of this book is yet another possible provocation.
While Vargas tells his story with great emotion and feeling, he also carefully illustrates how our immigration policy works and how undocumented people live. His book explains that there is no way for people in his position to change their legal status. Even after his hard work, his accomplishments and his many contributions to American life, he cannot “get in line” to get legal. There is no line. An immigration violation, unlike almost all other crimes except murder, has no statute of limitation. The crime of an innocent child crossing the border illegally remains actionable in Vargas’s case, some 25 years after the act.
Toward the end of the book Vargas addresses readers directly, asking, “Dear America, is this what you really want?” He knows what most Americans don’t: The number of undocumented people in the United States has been declining for the past decade. Mexicans are no longer coming into the country illegally in great numbers. And the United States spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other federal enforcement efforts combined (including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). However, the answer to Vargas’s question is that the current situation is not what Americans want. In a September 2017 Fox News poll, 83 percent of voters wanted legalization for undocumented immigrants working in the United States, and only 14 percent wanted them deported. Americans may disagree about abortion, taxes or heath care, but one issue actually unites us: support for Americans like Vargas. Our citizens, the vast majority of whom descend from immigrants, are pragmatic and generally kind, and don’t want the equivalent of the population of Ohio put in prisons and sent out of the country. Eleven million of our neighbors, co-workers, church members and schoolmates are living with the terror and loneliness that Vargas describes so vividly. Isn’t it time our elected officials reflected and acted upon the will and wisdom of the American people?
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Dey Street. 232 pp. $25.99