Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Jose Antonio Vargas' memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, left me with a discomfiture akin to my reaction to reading Kafka. Vargas tells his story of being an undocumented immigrant with "radical transparency." As he weaves his personal story with that of U.S. immigration history and policy, I was left with a picture of an expensive, dehumanizing system that traps some Americans-by-choice (or by circumstance in Vargas' case) in an absurdist bureaucracy.
Vargas, who was sent to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993 at the age of 12, didn't realize he was undocumented until he was 16 and an DMV employee told him his green card was fake when he tried to get a driver's license. "Furrowing her brows, she then lowered her head, leaned over, and whispered, 'This is fake. Don't come back here again.'" Teenaged Vargas thought she was mistaken, only to discover the truth when he confronted his grandfather, a legal immigrant, with whom he lived. In the twenty years between that revelation and the writing of the memoir, he consulted many lawyers in an attempt to change his status. By the time the first lawyer was consulted (his legal immigrant family mistrusted lawyers; their plan was for him to marry an American woman), it was too late to be adopted by his grandparents or the citizens-by-birth who had befriended the young and talented Vargas and offered to do so. He was too old for DACA protection when it was passed. And, as a gay man, he was unwilling to follow his grandfather's plan of marrying and American woman.
The through-line of Vargas' story is an intersection of fear and a sense of unworthiness. He spends most of his young adulthood fearful of being exposed as being undocumented and convinced of his own unworthiness--of making a living, of a spot in college (in both cases he wondered if he had "taken someone else's spot"), of the Pulitzer (which he won as a part of a team), and even of friendship, intimacy, and love.
The absurdism of the situation shines when, after he reveals his undocumented status through an essay in the NY Times in 2011, again and again people tell him angrily he should "get in line" and do it the "right way." Even those less hostile betray the widespread ignorance of the predicament of undocumented individuals (especially those brought here as children), when they ask why he doesn't simply "fix" his status and "get legal." The frustration of the catch22 is palpable. After a fellow FOXNews guest scoffs at his very existence, dismissing him at the end of a segment with "Get in line, and come in and tell us who you are," he writes: "I wanted to keep repeating 'there is no line!' I wanted to scream over and over again: THERE IS NO LINE! THERE IS NO LINE! THERE IS NO LINE!"
Vargas doesn't only take flak from the anti-immigration, "strong borders" crowd. He bemoans the mistrust he receives from some within the activist and undocumented communities. Some accuse him of seeking attention at the expense of the rest of the community. Others see the financial success he's achieved as a journalist and argue no one so well-off economically can speak for the undocumented community.
One of the big take-aways for me from the non-personal component of this account is the ways in which the "debate" around immigration continues a pattern of victim-blaming that has become all too familiar. Vargas articulates the fact that the U.S. is responsible for destabilizing countries, creating the circumstances that make migration attractive or necessary for survival. Then we criminalize the individuals who feel forced to take that path. In a scene where he is detained with Mexican children, he regrets his lack of Spanish: "If I spoke Spanish, I could have told the boys that none of this was their fault. I could have made sure they understood--even if most Americans do not--that people like us come to America because America was in our countries.
"I could have explained, in the clearest, most accessible way I could, the connection between the irreversible actions of the United States of America and the inevitable reactions in their countries of birth. ... How the largest group of people who migrate to the U.S.A.--voluntarily, forcibly, unknowingly, like them--do so because of what the U.S. government has done to their countries. How a trade agreement like the North American Free Trade Agreement, drove millions of Mexicans out of jobs and led parents to cross borders and climb up walls so they could feed their kids. How six decades of interventionist policies by both Republicans and Democrats brought economic and political instability and sowed violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. If I spoke Spanish, I could have explained, in the clearest, most accessible way I could, the connection between the dirty, muddy, worn-out Reeboks and Nikes they were wearing inside that cell and the inherent American need to expand its economic and political empire. I could have drawn a line between what used to be called 'imperialism'--justified by 'Manifest Destiny' 'the White Man's Burden,' and America's desire to 'discover' new 'frontiers'--to what is now known as 'internationalism' and 'globalization.'"
In the end, this memoir convinced me Vargas never had ego-driven motives. The loneliness and regret that seep from every page, every paragraph, left a sadness in my brain and spirit that again reminded me of Kafka. Even as he writes his own resonant and all-too-human story, the subtext is a man grappling with the messages of unworthiness he has been consuming and internalizing for decades.
"I feel like a thing. A thing to be explained and understood, tolerated and accepted. A thing that spends too much time educating people so it doesn't have to educate itself on what it has become. I feel like a thing that just can't be."
Overall the volume provides important facts about our immigration practices and policies. Even more importantly, though, it gives a glimpse into the harried and exhausting existence of someone who must live as a criminal on the run because of a decision someone else made decades ago.