Jose Antonio Vargas Humanizes the Illegal Immigrant Narrative

Originally Posted on The University News via UWIRE

When immigration is a hot topic in the news—and the Twitter feed of President Trump—Jose Antonio Vargas offers an enlightening narrative of immigration issues in the United States. “Dear America” tells the story of an undocumented American and his feeling of homelessness in a country he’s only ever known as home.

Vargas’ memoir begins with him as a young boy, sent by his single mother in the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the land of opportunity, dreams and success. All he wished for, however, was taken away from him at 16 years old when he found out his green card and passport were fake—leaving him without an identity and with a multitude of questions.

His story develops over the years in a sequence of circumstances that leave him with no choice but to lie about his status. Vargas shares every unpredictable situation about his college decision, his employment opportunities and his ability to remain in this country, making apparent his feelings of fear, loneliness and shame. In one instance, he obtained a driver’s license despite having no green card or passport to show. Vargas found that Oregon was the only state that did not require a green card or passport, only a school ID, birth certificate and proof of residency in the state. The only obstacle, however, was that he lived in Mountain View, California. With the help of some of his most trusted mentors, he found a mutual friend who lived in Oregon, used his address and obtained an Oregon driver’s license. This driver’s license enabled him to begin his journalistic career, one that included a paid summer internship at The Washington Post.

Vargas’ life was founded on lies—lies from his mother promising to follow him to America, lies about the alien registration number on his green card and lies he had to tell for fear of his security. Amidst the lies, he lost any sense of identity left in him; which is why he worked so hard as a journalist—to protect the only identity he knew to be true. Working at the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Daily News and The Washington Post helped Vargas soon become a well-known journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. In the book, Vargas writes about the contrasting feelings of success in his career, those of pride for doing well despite resistance and shame for a job he believed he did not deserve, a job he “stole.”

His memoir, he says, is only one story of 11 million undocumented Americans. He ultimately aims to humanize the undocumented experience, one that too many misunderstand. In “Dear America,” Vargas reclaims his narrative and refuses to let another one tell it. After years of choicelessness and lying, he makes perhaps the hardest choice one can make—to tell the truth.

Alongside his personal anecdotes, Vargas briefly explains important immigration legislation in the history of the United States—and how he could not benefit from any of it. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed, allowing many undocumented immigrants  to become naturalized; Vargas, however, came to the U.S. in 1993.

Another significant development for immigrant rights was President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protected many individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. This policy seemed like the perfect solution for Vargas’ situation, except that he was four months older than the 30-year-old cutoff age. By including these justifications in his memoir, Vargas shows just how difficult it can be to “get legal.” These factual notes combat the false single story of illegal immigration that is made known by the government and media.

Throughout the book, Vargas resists the use of “illegal” to describe him or others in similar situations, instead using “undocumented.” “I am here illegally,” he writes. “But as a human being, I cannot be illegal because that doesn’t exist. People cannot be illegal.”

The book encourages readers to shift the conversation about immigrants, identity and citizenship through Vargas’ story, but more importantly through his non-profit, Define American. Vargas has created a platform for many other unjust, misunderstood and undignified immigrant stories.

“Too often, we’re treated as abstractions, faceless and nameless, subjects of debate rather than individuals with families, hopes, fears, and dreams,” he wrote.

  “Dear America” is not just another beautiful, human story. It’s one that launches change, it promotes acceptance, it forces Americans to question how their dearest homeland is unconstitutionally treating its people. It puts readers in an uncomfortable place, imagining the terror of being stripped of their dignity and humanity. Vargas challenges people with the question, “If you wanted to have a career, if you wanted to have a life, if you wanted to exist as a human being, what would you have done?” That challenge, however, is exactly what our country needs—compassion.

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