FEBRUARY 26, 2019
EARLY IN Jose Antonio Vargas’s moving new book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, he reveals the thrill of seeing his byline on his first article for his high school newspaper. But it isn’t simply a young writer’s excitement at seeing his name in print for the first time; his byline is a powerful metaphor, representing an undocumented man’s struggle to be seen. It is tangible proof that he exists and is free to voice his opinions, despite the state’s prerogative to expel him from the country. Styled in the manner of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, the book consists of short, accessible essays in which Vargas reveals the life experiences that led to his current status as a stateless statesman, a man Bill O’Reilly terms, “The most famous illegal in America.” Part memoir and part current events, history lesson, immigration primer, and cultural mirror, the book reveals the emotionally devastating toll that current immigration policies take on individuals who, often because of their parents’ decisions, find themselves without legal status in the United States.
The book is divided into three parts, titled “Lying,” “Passing,” and “Hiding,” all of which capture different stages of Vargas’s life as an undocumented immigrant. It begins with Vargas’s childhood in the Philippines. An only child of a single mother — his father abandoned the family early on — Vargas describes himself as a mama’s boy whose poverty required them to share a bed in a tiny apartment. When he was 12, his mother informed him of a plan to send him to the United States to live with his Lolo and Lola — his grandparents. His mother promised to join them within a few months, at most a year, and put him on a plane with a man she told him was his uncle. Yet, she does not travel to the United States. Due to decisions his Lolo made with the immigration papers, his mother is never able to join him legally. As Vargas explains, his Lolo was a legal permanent resident. As such, he could not legally petition to bring his unmarried child (Vargas’s mother) to the United States, so he listed her as unmarried. Later his Lolo worried about the false declaration and withdrew the petition. His mother attempted to secure a tourist visa, but because she was unemployed, the application was denied. What follows is Vargas’s decades-long separation from his mother.
In high school, when Vargas attempted to obtain a driver’s license, he presented his green card to a woman at the DMV only to learn that the card was phony. He returned home to his Lolo, who informed him that what the woman at the DMV counter said was true. He isn’t supposed to be in the United States. And, without legal status, he cannot obtain a driver’s license. (Several states, including California, now allow undocumented people to legally obtain driver’s licenses.) Moreover, the “uncle” who flew with him to the United States was a smuggler and the passport he used was fake. The strategy Lolo then presented to Vargas was that he should work under the table until he marries a US citizen, thereby legalizing his status — something Vargas is loath to do because he is gay.
The truth about his legal status shattered Vargas. He suddenly didn’t know who to trust or what was true. Thus the book enters the second phase, “Passing.” Except for a few trusted teachers and mentors, Vargas hid his undocumented status and attempted to pass as a citizen. He even declared it on forms when applying for jobs as a journalist, first with the San Francisco Chronicle and later with the Washington Post. It was while at the Washington Post that he ultimately bared his soul in a New York Times magazine article entitled, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” a story that subsequently went viral.
If this story sounds familiar, it is. The material covers territory that this author has previously explored, first in the Times essay and subsequently in a film entitled Documented. But this book delves much deeper than his previous pieces. The beauty of memoir is that it allows writers to plumb emotional depths in ways that documentary films do not often do. Vargas digs into his psyche to reveal deep-rooted anxieties. For example, when he wins a Pulitzer in 2008, his first impulse is not to celebrate, but to worry about whether anyone will find out about his legal status. Readers also learn about his peripatetic lifestyle — how he constantly moves from empty apartment to empty apartment, unable to settle roots anywhere, perhaps to evade Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but perhaps also because he cannot stay anywhere long enough to face himself. The two decades of separation from his mother left him emotionally scarred, unable to form intimate relationships. Indeed, Vargas writes: “I’ve spent my entire adult life separated from Mama because of walls and borders, never fully realizing that I’ve been putting up walls and delineating borders in all my relationships […] I was always a complicated problem with no easy solution.”
It is this emotional exploration that provides the greatest insights in the book. Lying is corrosive and over time infects all aspects of life. Again, Vargas reveals the effect of legal status:
My relationships with people were shaped by the secrets I kept and the lies I had to tell; I feared that the more I shared of myself, the more people I would drag into my mess.
The lies I told to get jobs were exacerbated by the lies I told friends and coworkers about who I was, where I came from, what I could not do, and why.
Vargas’s life is a paradox. As a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and commentator on immigration issues, he now lives a semi-celebrity life. He is a frequent guest on talk shows and universities and accumulates enough travel points to travel first class. But he can never leave the United States. If he does, he cannot return legally. In many ways, Vargas’s life parallels that of James Baldwin’s. In the ’50s when Baldwin wrote Notes of a Native Son, he had already achieved literary acclaim. Yet, he still endured the indignities of Jim Crow. Baldwin and Vargas represent two enormously talented writers marginalized by American laws — in one case, the laws subjected people to segregation; in the other, the laws bar people from legally working and keep them in constant fear of deportation. These laws are anachronisms, no longer matching the realities of modern American society.
Vargas further connects the experiences of black people in the United States with those of Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups who are oppressed by US laws. He suggests that America has invited undocumented people to come and work at low-level jobs — to trim lawns, babysit kids, and build houses.
Many argue that people such as Vargas are at fault for their own predicaments. And if they did not come with full knowledge, their parents are certainly culpable. They contend that immigrants should stand in line and obtain their status just like everyone else, like their grandparents did. To this, Vargas vehemently argues that there is no line. Over and over, he attempts to debunk the immigration myths that pundits blithely toss, providing statistics and facts that unfortunately continue to be ignored.
Vargas is correct. There is no line. There exists no way to legalize the majority of undocumented people in this country. If there were, people like Vargas would have applied. Moreover, as a nation, we are deeply divided about how we fix this problem. The current administration is eagerly deporting all undocumented people it finds in its path. Immigrant rights advocates want to provide some way of legalizing them. Such desire is elusive. Indeed, after Congress would not vote on comprehensive immigration reform, young immigrant rights activists convinced President Obama to at least provide administrative relief for young people who were brought here as children. Hence, the program entitled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was born. Yet, when President Trump suggested granting a three-year temporary extension to young people with DACA, his conservative base called it an amnesty and refused to go along with it.
Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen is an important book for our time. As of this writing, the government has recently reopened after the longest shutdown in US history — all because of a debate over a wall between the United States and Mexico. At the same time, approximately 800,000 DACA recipients wait in limbo as the courts and executive branch battle the legality of the program. Add to those numbers the hundreds of thousands of individuals who the current administration has stripped of their Temporary Protected Status. These are people who have settled in the United States, established businesses and families here, who will now be asked to depart or be subject to deportation. And finally, there are the 11 million people who have never had legal status. Ultimately, this very personal memoir is about all of them, what has and will happen to them, their families, and their lives.