Jose Antonio Vargas' 'Dear America' Humanizes the Immigration Debate

In his new memoir, journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas offers invaluable insights on what it's like to be undocumented in America.  (Courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas)

“There is no line! There is no line! There is no line!” writes Jose Antonio Vargas in his new memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizenhis frustration practically leaping off the page.

This supposed line—where immigrants queue up in an orderly fashion to become citizens—is a favored rhetorical device of conservative pundits who often ignore the lived realities of undocumented immigrants fleeing poverty, violence, gangs and persecution. In the book, Vargas argues that, for many, a viable pathway to citizenship doesn’t exist.

Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker and co-founder of media nonprofit Define American, publicly revealed his undocumented status in 2011 in a heart-wrenching essay in The New York Times Magazine. Since then, he’s made it his mission to help the American public understand the lives of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. The support systems that help them survive legal hurdles and an anti-immigrant political climate are a crucial part of that story.

“When people want to help, how do you receive that help?” asks Vargas in an interview with KQED Arts. His own support system includes his immediate Filipino family, as well as his teachers, editors and hometown friends from Mountain View. For Vargas, these crucial supporters aren’t just political allies: he jokingly refers to them as his “white family.”

“When we use the term ally, I don’t think it’s enough," he says. "I don’t think it’s enough in terms of what is being done and what is at stake.”

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At a time when white nationalism has seeped into mainstream political discourse and the current administration fuels anti-immigrant rhetoric, Vargas argues that it’s important for Americans, regardless of race, to speak out against injustices and use their privilege to help the voiceless. In Dear America, Vargas writes: “The centrality of whiteness—how it constructed white versus black, legal versus illegal—hurts not only people of color who aren’t white, but also white people who can’t carry the burden of what they’ve constructed.”

Questions of race and immigration status are only two of the complex identity issues Vargas has faced. He is also a gay man who has had to navigate homophobia within the immigrant rights movement. “As much as people in the movement think they know me, they actually don’t,” Vargas says. “And, how painful it has been for me. It’s been so isolating.”

Jose Antonio Vargas as a child with his mother and grandmother in the Philippines.
Jose Antonio Vargas as a child with his mother and grandmother in the Philippines. (Courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas)

In Dear America, Vargas goes into detail about facing his his lolo and lola’s (grandpa and grandma’s) disappointment when he came out about his sexuality in 1999. Their wish was for Vargas to eventually fall in love with and marry a woman to legalize his immigration status. Instead, Vargas had to navigate this part of himself on his own.

“Writing this book, I owed it to myself,” Vargas says. “I had to write it in a way that was honest.”

In one chapter, Vargas describes the profound impact of the 1997 Time magazine cover where Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay. Years later, in 2012, Vargas and a group of Dreamers came out as undocumented on the cover of Time.

Although Dear America is a memoir, the struggles Vargas describes in the book—from the moment he left the Phillipines at 12 years old in 1993 to the day he got arrested on immigration violation charges in July 2014—lend insight into the plight of other undocumented immigrants. “Legality has forever been a construct of power,” Vargas writes. His words serve as a reminder that “legal” and “moral” aren’t always synonyms.

In the book, Vargas describes in detail how his lolo obtained fake documents to get him into the country. The ordeal is not an isolated case; many undocumented immigrants use falsified Social Security numbers to work in the United States. Vargas uses this example to debunk the myth that undocumented immigrants take resources from American taxpayers. Indeed, a 2016 report from The Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (ITEP) reveals that undocumented immigrants pay $11.64 billion in state and local taxes every year.

Jose Antonio Vargas at his high school graduation in Mountain View, California.
Jose Antonio Vargas at his high school graduation in Mountain View, California. (Courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas)

Dear America also deals with the psychological consequences of family separation. Vargas delves deep into his complicated relationship with his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since he left the Philippines as a child. “Separation not only divides families,” he writes, “Separation buries emotion, buries it so far down you can’t touch it.”

Oftentimes, undocumented immigrants can only connect with family members back home via technology; if a loved one dies, they often can’t return home for fear of being barred from the United States. These experiences take a toll on one’s mental health.

Jose Antonio Vargas was detained near the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014.
Jose Antonio Vargas was detained near the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014. (Courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas)

Don’t read Dear America expecting direct digs at the Trump administration. Beyond presenting a compelling personal account, Dear America serves as a history lesson on the complexity of the U.S. immigration system—how different presidents have tackled this issue and how the mainstream media perpetuates revisionist histories. It takes an incisive storyteller like Vargas to engage in that conversation.

“You have a lot of progressive people out there who don’t know that immigration has been a moral crisis since the Clinton era,” Vargas says. “They don’t want to face what happened during the Obama era; they don’t want to remember that George Bush was actually relatively good on this issue.”

In aiming to educate the wider American public, Vargas has learned where to channel his anger. "I didn’t want it to be an angry manifesto,” he says. "It’s bigger than that. There’s so many themes in the book that I wanted to explain. Even the theme of looking at America beyond this black-and-white binary."

At its core, Dear America is a heartrending book that poses important questions of why and how people migrate to the United States, and how a broken immigration system affects everyday families.

"Immigration is more than just immigration. It’s about what the country looks like and feels like," Vargas says. "To me, the biggest question is, what are we trying to build together? What vision are we trying to offer each other?"

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Jose Antonio Vargas reads from Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen on Sept. 29 at Aragon High School in Theater in San Mateo and Sept. 30 at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

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