The contentious debate over immigration was given a human face last week when Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine article. In a very personal essay, Vargas detailed his journey from boyhood in the Philippines to a prestigious journalism career in the United States. Vargas admitted to breaking a number of laws to conceal his citizenship status over more than a decade of working illegally for a range of high-profile publications, including the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and The New Yorker. The essay quickly rose to the top of the “Most e-mailed” list at the Times and landed Vargas, and his compelling story, on major media sites over the weekend.
Vargas’s personal story is vital because it complicates the usual terms of the immigration debate: outsiders vs. insiders, deserving vs. undeserving, legal vs. illegal. After all, one can’t help but see Vargas, though undocumented, as the consummate deserving insider—an American Dream hero incarnate, transcending race and class boundaries to make a real impact through his reporting. It’s nearly impossible to see a picture of the goofy adolescent, who watched “Frasier” to better his English or hear the story of his choir teacher’s admiration for him, and think “criminal.”
Publishing this piece is not the end of Vargas’s advocacy on immigration. The article coincides with the launch of new campaign Vargas co-founded, Define American. Its aim is to inspire a new conversation about immigration, particularly in unveiling the truth about what its founders call “a growing 21st century Underground Railroad” for undocumented immigrants who are helped along by teacher, pastors, friends, and employers. Vargas told his Twitter followers: “i’ve written hundreds of stories. very few on immigration. now, i will write solely about immigration.”
But Vargas, in writing openly about his immigration status in a climate of polarized views on the subject and increased criminalization of undocumented immigrants, is at risk of being deported. As he wrote in the article: “I…am working with legal counsel to review my options.” Jehmu Greene, co-founder of Define American and the daughter of two former undocumented immigrants herself, said of Vargas, “Of course he’s afraid. But he’s been living in fear for the past eighteen years. He has the support of the Filipino American Legal Defense Fund and he is taking responsibility for breaking the law.”
Vargas may have made the biggest media splash, but he is not the first undocumented immigrant to out himself for a cause. In 2010, thousands of undocumented immigrants told their stories publicly in an effort to humanize the fight for the DREAM Act—which would have created a pipeline for them all to achieve legal residency. The DREAM Act passed the House but failed in the Senate in December of last year. Marquette University student Maricela Aguilar, an immigrant from Mexico, was one of the student activists who outed herself. Despite the DREAM Act’s defeat, she didn’t feel her admission was made in vain. “I’d much rather have that out in the public than just living in fear,” she told The New York Times.
The bravery of Vargas, Aguilar and others shines a light on how dangerous this kind of transparency is for immigration reform activists—and how imperative it is that we not only celebrate their bravery, but protect them so they can continue their critical work. Their stories have the power to shift hearts and minds, not only because they humanize a contentious issue. Their stories demonstrate that there is no reasonable option for undocumented immigrants like Vargas, who don’t have an identity or a community rooted in the country of their birth, but whose only option for obtaining American citizenship was, as an immigration lawyer told him, leaving the country, accepting a 10-year ban on returning, and then applying to return legally. Their real life experiences reveal just how illogical, unsustainable, and unjust our current immigration policies really are, and how desperately we need comprehensive reform.
The threat of deportation for citizens like Vargas—young and with no criminal record—are, admittedly, slim. Spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Cori W. Bassett, told NPR in an emailed statement: “ICE takes enforcement action on a case-by-case basis — prioritizing those who present the most significant threats to public safety as determined by their criminal history and taking into consideration the specific facts of each case, including immigration history.”
But this doesn’t mean that the undocumented immigrants who tell their stories are not at risk. A couple of high profile cases have revealed how arbitrary the deportation process has become. Steve Li, then a 20-year-old City College student became a symbol of the kind of deserving immigrant youth who the DREAM Act would help as he awaited deportation in fall of 2010, inspiring a Facebook campaign. Li’s plight inspired the attention of Senator Dianne Feinstein and other politicians and he was released from an immigration detention center in Arizona after two months. So far, he remains in the US, though he hasn’t achieved any legal status.
Mandeep Chahal, a sophomore at U.C. Davis, was also threatened with deportation this year, despite being the very model of a student the failed DREAM Act would have helped. She was voted “most likely to save the world” by her high school classmates after starting a humanitarian nonprofit. Like Li, Chahal and her mother, who also faced deportation, were saved by a robust Facebook campaign. Her lawyer, Kalpana Peddibhotla, told Patch.com that she is “fairly certain” that Chahal and her mother would have been deported without “thousands of supporters form around the country who have advocated on their behalf.”
Li and Chahal didn’t out themselves for a political cause, as so many of their peers did, but they did live very public, “normal” lives—not hiding their status, but not flaunting it either. Their stories illustrate that it doesn’t even take an activist’s bold and challenging mentality to attract the gaze of ICE. Just being a ambitious student who earns public recognition can, thanks to our backward system, get one in trouble.
The first generation of undocumented immigrants to grow up in the U.S., earn college degrees, enlist in the military, and pursue meaningful work despite incredible obstacles, is coming of age. Despite anti-immigration advocates’ best efforts, they’re not going away. And increasingly, they’re not staying silent. Their public stories point towards a political truth: it’s time that we figured out an immigration policy more sophisticated than randomly applied discretion and Facebook campaigns.
There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, and many of them are young, brave, and ready for a fight. Gaby Pacheco is one such fighter. An undocumented student involved in organizing for the DREAM Act, she recently published an op-ed on CNN.com in which she argued that President Barack Obama should use his executive power to stop deportations of youths eligible for the DREAM Act. She wrote that this act with precedent (President Bush used his discretionary powers to defer the deportation of undocumented immigrant spouses of military soldiers) would keep “families together until Congress is able to put its differences aside and acknowledge that we are part of the future of our great country.”
It’s a pathway to citizenship that these young immigrants need. As Greene said, “Jose would happily pay a fine, get to the back of the line, behind everyone who has been attempting to come into this country legally to simply know that he has a path forward. He has worked hard, he has paid taxes, and he wants to continue contributing to the country he loves.”