Vargas, the Undocumented

As I set off my Chinese fireworks on the Fourth of July, thinking about freedom and independence and what it means to be American, I also had Jose Antonio Vargas on my mind.

I hope he was celebrating the freedom of the truth with some vigor.

Just over two weeks ago, Vargas, 30, set off some fireworks of his own with a public confessional as an undocumented person in America, in no less than the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Read it and, at the very least, you’ll see why “undocumented” is the operative descriptive word here and not “illegal.” The 4,000 word essay describes Vargas’ odyssey as an innocent 12-year-old boy from the Philippines, put on an airplane by his mother and sent off to live in California with his grandparents, who were legal immigrants.

Unbeknownst to Vargas, his base identification documents were fake, a fact he discovered only in high school. That would significantly change the notion of Vargas’ “paper chase.” Beyond diplomas and degrees, his life could only be “normal” if he could secure an official document like a driver’s license.

For the last 14 years, he’s lived from document expiration date to expiration date. And in between he would do such “illegal” things like graduate from college, work hard, pay taxes and earn a spot on the Pulitzer Prize winning team of reporters covering and the Virginia Tech shootings for the Washington Post.

Is this really the kind of person we want to deport?

Free-market conservatives ought to cheer the ingenuity and determination of these folks.

These aren’t slackers.

There are 11 million of them navigating a system that enables them to build a life in America.

Some people may resent that. But I don’t. And if anyone has a right to dislike Vargas, my family certainly does.

As an American Filipino, I’ve had relatives play by the rules and wait over 15 years in the queue for entry to America. I have dozens of other relatives who have given up the wait and remain in the Philippines.

But I don’t begrudge Vargas one bit. Not only is he a victim of America’s broken system, he’s a victim of his own parents’ zeal to give their son a real opportunity in life. In today’s Philippines, an innocent kid armed with fake papers and a ticket to the U.S. has a fighting chance.

I also admire Vargas’ courage. As his story reveals, he was not just an undocumented person; he was also gay. Until his story was published, he was double-closeted. Not even the standard resolution–marriage to a citizen–would have helped him.

What surprised me most, however, was the reaction to his story from others, primarily minority journalists, who cynically view Vargas’ sudden truth-telling as tantamount to a good career move.

He’s in the Times. He’s started a high-profile immigration reform non-profit. Who’s going to deport him now? And all he had to do was publicly continue the lie started by his parents.

“It’s almost impossible to not be deeply disturbed by the self-promotion disguised as sacrifice,” wrote Esther Cepada, of the Washington Post Writers Group. Cepeda even goes as far as saying Vargas has brought dishonor to the journalistic profession, “humiliated” respected colleagues, and caused Hispanic and Asian professionals to feel “now, more than ever, that their honesty and residency status are also in doubt.”

Why so paranoid, Cepeda?

The only paranoia in the newsroom that’s justified is whether or not the newspaper industry will survive or shed more jobs.

Instead of finding sympathy and compassion for Vargas, “holier than thou” journalists like Cepeda get huffy about the Church of Journalism and castigate Vargas for being on the wrong side of the truth. Frankly, if Vargas didn’t lie in any of his stories, his immigration status is irrelevant. Outside the margins, there’s no requirement to be a saint in journalism. Lord knows few of my former colleagues would qualify.

But I’d also ask Vargas’ “holier than thou” detractors this: If they were sent over as a young kid with fake papers, once they discovered that, would they be so willing to turn themselves in?

I doubt it.

What should Vargas have done? Gone back to a country that was no longer his home?

After 18 years living on American soil, Vargas is in reality an American. Perhaps not a citizen, but an American. We’ve devalued that. The phrase is, after all, “we the people,” not “we the citizens.”

Instead of hoping for Vargas’ deportation, let’s hope his tale becomes one of the prototypical examples that will make reasonable legislators come to their senses and pass the Dream Act this year. Young achievers like Vargas who contribute to America need a way to update their immigration status without being unfairly penalized.

The National Federation of Filipino American Associations estimates that approximately 40-44 percent of the undocumented student population in the Asian community are Filipino students, just as Vargas was.

The best way to stop the flow would be for places like the Philippines to ramp up and reach their economic potential soon, making any place outside the U.S. far more attractive.

Barring that, the Dream Act remains the fairest way to acknowledge the significant sweat equity these immigrants have invested in America.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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