Jose Antonio Vargas Thinks Immigration Is a Bipartisan Mess

Jose Antonio Vargas Thinks Immigration Is a Bipartisan Mess


Originally published by The NY Times

The title of your new memoir is “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.” According to the law, you’re not a citizen. What does being a citizen mean to you? I wasn’t born here. I don’t have the right papers to be here, but I am here. After coming out as an undocumented citizen, I’ve evolved in my thinking about what “citizen” means — I think it’s that we’re accountable to each other. We share this country, we share a contract with a bunch of people, and I can’t just be screaming at the top of my lungs. I’ve got to be able to hear others.

Do you feel that you’re a better citizen than many legal citizens? I’m not sure that’s for me to judge. But that’s precisely the conversation: that people like me should earn our citizenship. But for my fellow Americans who happened to be born here — what have they done to earn their citizenship?

You came here on a plane from the Philippines at 12. Are people surprised to hear that there are many undocumented immigrants who didn’t cross the Southern border? Incredibly surprised. I grew up in California, so I have a lot of Mexican friends. I didn’t really realize how anti-Mexican this country is until I started traveling around it. There’s an entire anti-immigrant machine, and it’s very savvy at how it uses media. That has cemented in people’s mind that this debate is about borders or walls. The reality is that more than 40 percent of the undocumented population are people who overstayed their visa. The fastest-growing undocumented populations are coming from Asia, not Mexico.

Before you went public about being undocumented, you had a whole network of people helping you. At one point, a friend’s father-in-law helped you get an Oregon driver’s license by letting you use his home address, even though you’d never even met him. Why do you think they put themselves at risk for you? Because they wanted to help. If it wasn’t for all those administrators and teachers and friends, I would not have gotten my driver’s license, which allowed me to have a career. I remember I once dropped it in the urinal and I freaked out. It was literally the only piece of ID I had.

You’re not only openly undocumented, you’re also openly a journalist, two of Donald Trump’s least favorite things. Have you just been waiting for the day you get deported? I just have to be ready for anything and everything.

Do you think about what life would be like if you were deported? Toni Morrison has said that freedom is in the mind. I have to pray that to myself every day. If all I think about are all the limitations of things I cannot do, things that many Americans who are citizens take for granted, I wouldn’t do anything.

You wrote that even mainstream journalists get basic facts wrong about immigration. What do you think they get wrong most often? That there’s a process for people like me to legalize ourselves. They actually think what happens is you go to City Hall, you fill out a form, then poof, you’re an American — you can even get welfare! That’s the understanding. It’s staggering.

One of the most shocking things in your book occurred when you were a guest on Tucker Carlson’s show and, right before the cameras rolled, he told you it would have been great TV if he called ICE on you. It seemed as if you were too stunned to answer at the time. What do you wish you would have said to him? In that moment, I had to ask myself, “What am I participating in?” Don’t get me wrong: I’ll talk to anybody. If you want to have a serious conversation with me, tell me where and when. I don’t care if you’re a Republican. As far as I’m concerned, this has been a bipartisan mess.

Do you sympathize with any of the concerns of people who oppose illegal immigration? I talk to as many of them as possible and usually bring my tax forms with me.

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