Jose Antonio Vargas talked about the story of his life and what it means to be an American, during a visit to Rutgers Law School centered around his new book: Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Vargas, who was part of the Pulitzer-Prize winning staff at the Washington Post, was the guest speaker at the inaugural Distinguished Immigration and Citizenship Lecture, sponsored by the Rutgers Center for Immigration Law, Policy and Justice, founded by Professor Rose Cuison Villazor.
The author, who came to the United States from his native Philippines when he was 12, said he first learned he was not a legal citizen of the United States when he applied to get his driver’s license at the age of 16 and found out he did not have a valid green card. He discovered his grandparents had paid smugglers to get him to the United States and purchased false documents so he could live in the U.S., after his mother sent him to the U.S. to have a better life.
Vargas said much of his life has been spent “lying, passing, and hiding” including trying to lose his Filipino accent, shunning news assignments that required him to enter federal buildings because he didn’t have the proper identification, and once, being asked to move out of his Los Angeles apartment after his landlord feared ICE would raid the building.
He disclosed his undocumented status in a first-person article in the New York Times Magazine and has gone on to become a filmmaker, author, and national spokesman. During his talk at Rutgers, he said he has spoken at more than 1,200 events in 49 states, including 400 colleges, over the last seven years. Vargas said he doesn’t shy away from speaking to conservative groups – including Tea Party organizations– and said he seeks to understand why people have anti-immigration sentiments.
He noted that prior to 1965, the majority of immigrants coming to the U.S. were Caucasian, but people after 1965 were more often people of color, “This is a lot of change in a country that’s always been kind of resistant to change.”
Vargas pointed out contradictions between U.S. policy towards immigration and its checkered history towards immigrants and its own people of color.
“Trump’s election and governance is a culmination of all of the lies and myths and delusions we’ve told ourselves about how we came to be and who we actually are—a country founded on the plunder and genocide of indigenous people and built on the labor of imported slaves that is constantly replenished by new generations of immigrants, who, from the very beginning have always tried to keep other immigrants out,” he said.
Vargas said he has had to explain to friends who ask “Why don’t you just become legal” how difficult the process is. For him – as one of 11 million undocumented people living in the United States – there are four routes to legal status – a President pardon, an individual bill signed by Congress, immigration reform, or leaving the country, knowing there is a 10-year ban before he could try to enter again.
He also said the U.S. must look at the reason that people from other countries, including Central American nations, are fleeing to the U.S., often, he said, it’s because of U.S. policies that destabilized those countries or caused economic turmoil. “The reasons are much more complicated than chasing the American Dream,” he said.
Americans must differentiate between what is a legal policy towards people and what is a moral policy., pointing out that slavery, Apartheid, and the Holocaust were legal, but also were immoral. “As we discuss immigration, we cannot divorce it from who this country determined to be citizens,” he said. “We are a part of the struggle for full equality that this country continues to strive for.”
After the talk, Vargas signed copies of his book.