What is being an American? Immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas has some ideas

In July, Jose Antonio Vargas was arrested trying to board a plane for L.A. for a screening of his film "Documented," about his life before and after he "outed" himself as an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S. for decades. For the first time since he began living openly without papers in 2011, he will have to appear before an immigration judge. In the meantime, he continues his Define American campaign, challenging this country to acknowledge him and those like him as Americans. And he's moving back to California from the East Coast, to the state where he grew up and one of 11 in the country that will issue him an honest-to-goodness driver's license.

What happens to you now?

There's no date yet. As you know, immigration courts are so backed up, I don't know how long that's going to take.

So, paradoxically, your only official U.S. document now is for a court date?


You've written that your high profile protects you.

I fly with my Filipino passport that doesn't have a visa. I have been traveling all across the country going through airport security. I get to south Texas and realize I'm trapped; I didn't know there would be Border Patrol agents at the airport. What do I do? I write an essay for Politico that I'm trapped!

The moment I gave the Border Patrol agent my passport, he asked me, "Why don't you have a visa?" Three years ago when I outed myself in the New York Times, I was done lying. One of my friends said I'm exercising a form of radical transparency. So I said, "I'm undocumented, I don't have papers," and the minute I said that, he had handcuffs on me. I don't think the American public realizes that's a daily reality and daily fear for undocumented people like me.

At one point I was very briefly in a cell with some of the Central American children [who have been crossing the border this year]. I went to south Texas to document what was happening with them. I don't speak Spanish. I just looked at these kids. Some of them are crying; most of them look very lost. And we're locking up these children in detention centers?

People have been asking you whether this was a stunt, saying you flaunt your status.

Flaunting what, exactly? That even though I've lived in the U.S. for 21 years I still have no government-issued ID? [Vargas came to California when he was 12 to stay with his grandparents; he's too old to be covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act.] That even though this is my home — where I went to school, where I've worked and contributed, where I've built my life — my own country has yet to recognize me as one of its own? If I am flaunting anything, it's the breadth of ignorance and misinformation about immigration and undocumented people like me.

If you want to talk about a stunt, let's talk about [Texas] Gov. [Rick] Perry. He sent the National Guard to the border — the safest, most militarized zone I've ever been to. Border Patrol agents are everywhere. So Gov. Perry is sending the National Guard to a border that's already secure? That's a stunt. Me trying to get out of south Texas was a reality for undocumented people who don't have papers or government-issued ID.

Did you have an emergency plan in case you were stopped, as finally happened?

When I decided to leave south Texas, my friends said, "Why don't we get you in a car and smuggle you out?" But you can't get through south Texas without going through an inspection point, and the person driving me could get in trouble. So that wasn't an option. The night before [the flight], I sent an email to my friends, then called my grandmother to warn her something might happen. My friend Alida Garcia [flew] down; she said, "I'm going to be with you when you're trying to get out." She's the one who took the photo of me being arrested. I gave her the names to call, my lawyer, my family.

Can you use this incident to further your cause?

Three years ago, when we started Define American, the goal was to humanize the undocumented. Our job is to tell stories, not just my stories. This issue is so politicized and partisan and abstract, the goal is to humanize the issue and get it out of the political lens. So for me, if they arrest the quote unquote most high-profile public undocumented person, what do you think they're doing to the people who aren't high profile?

An open letter on Huffington Post from undocumented L.A. young people criticizes you for promoting a "good immigrant assimilationist narrative." They said you don't represent them.

Of course I don't speak for them. I am one person. My goal is, how do I use this one story to illuminate a universal truth about [being] undocumented in this country? I am the most privileged undocumented immigrant in America. I'm also an undocumented person who hasn't seen his mother in 21 years. That's the kind of family separation that happens for all undocumented people.

When I decided to do this three years ago, I asked myself, am I ready to tie my fate to undocumented people whose circumstances I may not share? What is pernicious is this framing of the deserving immigrant versus the non-deserving immigrant. We all deserve dignity, all of us.

Much of the world's population is made up of potential political or economic refugees. Is it just about who's lucky enough to get here?





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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