Pulitzer Prize Columnist, Jose Antonia Vargas, has decided to make himself a ‘poster boy’ for those illegal immigrants who exemplify the good reasons for passing the so-called “Dream Act” through the American Congress. He set-off a small news tsunami by exposing himself as an illegal immigrant and speaking-out for passage of the legislation.
It is too soon to know what effect his self-exposure will have on the legislation and upon his personal life. Vargas risks imprisonment and deportation by his confession. The people who assisted him, and have decided to also be exposed as helping him, risk similar possible repercussions for their actions. While admittedly an act of bravery, the reactions to his confessions have been wide and various, often dependent upon perceptions that are not specific to him.
Vargas came to the USA the way that fifty-percent of illegal immigrants do, by airplane, from the Philippines when he was 12 years old. He doesn’t explain the legal status he had for this trip, but it had to involve a legitimate USA visa, which guaranteed entry. He was accompanied by a ‘coyote’ to whom his mother delivered him in Manila, and who, in turn, delivered him to his grandparents in Mountain View, California. .Vargas would not only have no idea of what type of visa he had, nor if that visa was correctly applied for, since he would not become aware of his illegal status until he was sixteen (16) years old, and applied for a Drivers License. At the Motor Vehicles Bureau he would ‘discover’ that his Permanent Residence (Green) Card was a fake, when the License clerk proclaimed it was fake and told him to leave and not come back. That clerk could have had him arrested, on the spot, but chose not to do so. Instead he returned home to confront his grandfather about this ‘discovery’, which resulted in the revelation that would burden him from that time forward – that he was an illegal immigrant.
This was a stunning discovery for him. From that time onward he had to learn to avoid too much attention, at the same time satisfy his intellectual curiosity and interests in doing well. His grandparents preferred that he keep his head low and only strive to work at some, more-or-less, menial job that would bring little attention to him. Instead he found that he excelled at writing and developed into an award-winning, Pulitzer Prize, Journalist. Each step along the way he had moments of great anxiety and stress, for fear of being discovered as an ‘illegal’. At several strategic moments he had assistance from USA citizens – school teachers, counselors, co-workers, etc, some of whom have also come forward to admit their help – to help him keep his secret.
There are those who criticize his appearance on the ‘immigration stage’ as an attempt to claim a special status for himself because of his accomplishments. They state that he should not be afforded any special consideration because of what he has achieved. This position misses the foundation of his argument, whether or not one agrees with it. Vargas defends people, like himself, who came to the USA as children, who by definition had no control over their illegal entry, and have known no other home, other than the USA. He argues that his achievements have been made as ‘an American’, which should not afford him special status, but instead indicate the possibilities of what those, like himself, can contribute to the only country that they have ever known – when given the opportunity to do so.
The ‘Dream Act’ – actually has stringent requirements for those who would be accepted in the USA. It would not apply to others who decide to now enter in hopes of qualifying. It does not allow for repatriation of relatives, including parents. It only has applicability to those who have been in the USA since childhood, for a certain number of years.
Meanwhile, Vargas has made two potential errors in his argument – things that can be misunderstood and misinterpreted by other Americans. One is that, on national television (ABC-TV) he spoke of ‘going home’ when he plans to return to the Philippines for the first time in eighteen years. For many Americans, without contact with people from foreign countries, he could be seen as foregoing his claim to being ‘American’ by claiming some other place as ‘home’. In fact, America is his home and the Philippines is his country of origin, but this type of dialog is often stated this way among immigrants, legal or otherwise. It has a nostalgic feeling and would still be reflective of memories, in this instance, gathered up until the age of 12.
The other error was that his mother, in comments about his public pronouncements, told a NY Times reporter that Vargas had obtained a Philippine passport as a hedge against being deported and becoming a man-without-a-country. Yet to many Americans this would seem to be a confirmation that he doesn’t truly believe that he is an American, despite his protestations, and few Americans know much about passports, nationality, and the concept of dual-citizenship.
We know that children forced to depart the USA, the only home that they’ve ever known, would not be “happy campers” in their new homeland and feel that they had been done a great ‘injustice’. This would not be very good for the USA in either a diplomatic or political-economic sense.
Are we going to round-up everyone – think millions of people – and deport them? Not really.
Can the USA prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants? Maybe, but the other lesson of Vargas’ story is how he was able to create false documentation as part of his maneuvering through the system.
The unanswered part of the story is that American employers have proven that they often prefer to hire people who have little or no rights, and are therefore totally compliant and fearful – and easy to take advantage of.
Jose Antonio Vargas has attached his ‘name’ to a cause without a certain ending. It is a risky venture to undertake. Time will tell if he has made a wise decision.