Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jose Antonio Vargas

I have just finished reading “OUTLAW:  My life in America as an Undocumented Immigrant” by Jose Antonio Vargas in the NYT magazine, June 26 edition.  Many people will recognize Vargas’ by-line from years of excellent reporting for a variety of newspapers and blogs, and from his work on HIV/AIDS which culminated in a documentary called “The Other City.” 

This is a personal memoir about living as an acclaimed journalist devoted to truth while hiding his undocumented status.  Vargas was sent to the United States from the Philippines at the age of 12 and only discovered he was undocumented when he applied for a driver’s license when he was 16.  This article details the lengths he went to both to become an American citizen, which was impossible, and then to hide his undocumented status.  Moved by the courage of the many undocumented students who testified on behalf of the DREAM ACT, Vargas joins a growing chorus of people willing to risk being deported to countries they have not lived in for years (many since they were infants) in order to protest our country’s  unfair and racist laws governing immigration.  

Vargas risks not only deportation but loss of his career.  He says that he recently managed to get his driver’s license renewed which “offered me five more years of acceptable identification—but also five more years of fear, of lying to people I respect and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am. “

He continues, “I’m done running.  I’m exhausted.  I don’t want that life anymore.”  

I read this article on the heels of a trip to East Palestine, OH with my cousins, mother and sister.  There we visited the house my mother grew up in, saw the schools she went to, and paid our respects to our grandparents and great grandparents, and a variety of other relatives buried nearby.  Our family thrives on stories and we have a lot of them about our long dead relatives.  But we have no stories about how they got documented or whether they had to live in the USA illegally for any period of time.  And why?  They came from England and Germany a long time ago and they were welcomed here.  Their lives were not easy, but their struggles were not compounded by having to hide their immigration status. 

Most people I respect support the DREAM ACT and other elements of immigration reform.   Many of my colleagues work in organizations for which immigrants rights is a main program area.  I am sure reading Vargas’ article will cause us to increase our efforts.   But what I hope will come from Vargas’ coming out is that people who may have mixed feelings about immigration will see the very human toll that these laws and attitudes take.   There are approximately eleven million undocumented people living in the United States today.  Multiply his experience times 11 million and you get a sense of suffering that is almost unimaginable in a country which has as its most iconic symbol, the Statue of Liberty.  Vargas has put a human face on all these numbers.   Now it is up to all of us to change our immigration laws—to work on doing so a little bit every day.

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