Scenes from an undocumented life, number one. Jose Antonio Vargas is in his late 20s, a remarkably successful journalist, covering the 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post. He takes a call from his editor. There’s a political meeting he needs to attend. Vargas leaves the gay bar he has been visiting for a story in Gun Barrel City, Texas, gets in his car and starts speeding along the highway. A sheriff stops him. Vargas hands over his driving licence, secured through a social security number that was in turn secured through a fake passport. He waits. He tries to control his nerves. He is worried he might wet himself. Only a few of his close friends know he’s what some Americans disparagingly call “an illegal” and others call an undocumented immigrant.
“I remember thinking,” he says, “I’m a political reporter for the Washington Post. I’m in Texas, I’m covering the primaries, he’s going to go back to his car, and he’s going to put my details into the system, and how long is it going to take him to find out?” Vargas is certain the sheriff is about to discover his secret: that he was sent to the US from the Philippines by his mother, aged 12; that he then grew up with his grandparents, naturalised US citizens, and only learned he was undocumented by accident, aged 16; that he has been trying to make his way as best he can, not always lawfully, ever since.
He confides to the sheriff that he’s on his way to an important story. The sheriff takes pity. Vargas drives on.
Scenes from an undocumented life, number two. Vargas finds out he has a Wikipedia page. This shouldn’t be surprising. Since riding his bike to a fire for his first story, for his local paper, the Mountain View Voice, in 1999, he has pursued his career with blistering drive. His editors at the Washington Post put him forward for a Pulitzer nomination for his moving, deeply researched series about the city’s Aids crisis when he is in his mid-20s. Two years later, aged 27, he actually wins a Pulitzer, as part of the team that covers the Virginia Tech massacre for the paper. After this triumph, he sits in the office bathroom thinking (he mimes slumping despair): “What do I do now? What else can I do?”
He interviews Al Gore for Rolling Stone magazine. He is assigned to interview one of the most famous and famously private men in the world, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, for the New Yorker (a magazine that tops the wishlist for young, ambitious American writers who hope to be noticed). And all the while he is feeling sick at the growing scrutiny. He chose to become a journalist because it represented a form of validation. “I remember the first article I ever wrote, and I saw my name in the paper, and I already knew I was undocumented and I was thinking: how can they now say I don’t exist?” But this validation came with extraordinary risks. “The more successful I got, the more scared I got,” he says, when we meet on a sultry summer day in Manhattan. “My name was all over Google. I had a Wikipedia page I was terrified to look at. And so I just snapped. I thought: if I’m going to come out with this, I’m going to do it in a big way. And not just for myself. This can’t just be my story.”
When Vargas revealed his secret in a 4,000-word article in the New York Times last month, it became the most-shared article on Google that week, and he became the best-known undocumented immigrant in the US. You might think it would be easy to achieve this last distinction. After all, as Vargas says, the life of the undocumented immigrant is “to lay low. You don’t talk about it.” Many are forced to cut short their education, and make their living in a shadow economy, in low-paid, cash-in-hand jobs.
But over the past few years, in a country with an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, some have tired of the constraints, slurs and stigma, the emptiness and oddness of an immigration debate devoid of undocumented immigrants themselves. And so they have been coming out, declaring themselves “undocumented and unafraid”, and putting themselves at immediate risk of deportation. They have staged marches, rallies, sit-ins, and public coming-out actions.
Many are young people, students. People such as Gaby Pacheco, a 26-year-old woman whose parents are originally from Ecuador, who has lived in the US since she was eight. Last year, Pacheco and three fellow activists walked from Florida to Washington DC – 1,500 miles – to demand change; three, including Pacheco, were undocumented immigrants, one had just obtained legal residency. They were marching for access to higher education, worker’s rights, and to stop deportations and the separation of families. “We were seeing so many children who were being sent from house to house, with neighbours taking care of them, because their parents had been deported,” she says.
In 2006, after Pacheco talked openly about her status, someone reported her to the authorities. “One morning, very early, immigration knocked really loudly, and came into our house and rounded us up. That was terrifying.” Pacheco had a temporary student visa, so was released, and continued to speak out. She now works as national co-ordinator of the group Education Not Deportation (End), helps people challenge removal proceedings against them, and is also furthering her own ambitions. When she was 17, she says, she naively thought, “I would have my PhD by now. My dream is to open a music therapy centre and create curriculums specifically for autistic adults, and people with Down’s syndrome.” She has finished her bachelor’s degree, but is ineligible for funding for further study.
If a vote on the Dream Act had been successful last year, Pacheco might have had a clear path to her ambitions. Dream stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. The act was first proposed 10 years ago, and polls suggest it is supported by a majority of the US population. It would allow people brought to the country as minors a path to permanent residency status, either by pursuing a college education, or through military service. Pacheco and her fellow activists lobbied hard for this legal change, but were unsuccessful. On 18 December last year, the senate voted on the bill; 60 votes in favour were needed for it to proceed. It fell just short at 55 (41 voted against it). Pacheco was devastated, and moved to Washington DC so the legislators would have a human face to answer to. “I decided to come and live here, to continue fighting, to be a constant reminder to senators that they voted no to an individual, an individual who wants to work in special education.”
Vargas had been watching Pacheco’s walk with interest, as well as following groups such as UnitedWeDream and DreamActivist on Twitter. When the Dream Act failed, it was a turning point for him too. That day, he took a long walk from his home in Manhattan to the Brooklyn bridge, and decided it was time to tell his story.
Coming out as an undocumented immigrant involves obvious risks. Last week, for instance, Vargas’s driving licence – his main proof of identity – was revoked. This was inevitable, he says, when he published the article, because it documented the subterfuge involved in securing the licence, and so he had already decided to stop driving. “I came forward in the article to say I had broken these laws, and I don’t want to break them any more, and now I have to live an alternative kind of life,” he says. It was on a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), aged 16, to obtain a driving permit, that he first discovered he wasn’t a legal US resident. When he handed over his green card, the clerk told him it was fake, and he suddenly faced a very different life from the one he had expected.
One lawyer told Vargas that publishing his story was “legal suicide”, but he decided he was ready for the consequences. The conversation around immigration in the US is as febrile as ever – think of all the bizarre, often offensive debate that took place around Barack Obama’s citizenship status, the dogged pursuit of his birth certificate by those in the “birther movement”. As that debate raged, deportations were taking place at an enormous rate: almost 800,000 people have been deported during Obama’s time in office. And Vargas could potentially follow them.
Since telling his story, Vargas has been criticised for the lies he has told to get by. Some have suggested these undermine his entire career as a journalist, which depends on truth and transparency. But for him, he says, the question is: “What did I lie about, and why did I have to lie about it? It would be another issue if they found lies in the news articles. In many ways I think I’ve always overcompensated. I was always almost too careful, because I knew if anybody ever found any way to doubt my work, then they’d start picking my life apart too. The question I’ve been asking everybody is: what would you have done? Would you have just stopped? Would you have just started waiting tables? Would you have just gotten married, even though you were gay?”
Vargas came out as gay in his late teens, causing a short rift with his grandfather, who, as a Catholic, was upset on religious grounds – and also because this closed the most obvious path to citizenship. A few years later, Vargas visited a lawyer for advice. He was told his only chance for legal residency was to go back to the Philippines, stay for 10 years, and then apply to return. The conversation left him devastated. This would mean travelling back to a country he hardly knew, and a family he hadn’t seen for years; it’s now 18 years since he last saw his mother. He hasn’t seen his half-sister since she was two (she is now 20), and he has never met his 14-year-old half-brother.
Now Vargas has dedicated himself to re-framing and elevating the debate around immigration. He has started a group called Define American, and emails have been flooding in, both from undocumented immigrants and the people who help and protect them. He says he set up the group because “the way we talk about immigration is broken. The only reason my story got the traction it did online is because other people see themselves in it. They see themselves as me, or as one of the people who helped me.” His story includes many instances of exemplary kindness: his school principal went so far as to consider adopting him, his choir teacher switched a school trip from Japan to Hawaii so he could attend, one of his mentors at the Washington Post put his own job and reputation on the line to keep Vargas employed there after he told him his secret. “That’s the only reason why this story spoke as much as it did, because so many people are involved . . . The strategy now is how do we make sure we’re not just talking among ourselves with this issue? How do we talk to people who don’t agree with us? How do we target people who haven’t quite made up their minds? How do we reach the persuadable middle, who we can persuade through facts and individual stories?”
There will be hard questions along the way about where immigration lines are drawn. Vargas says he’s ready to face them. “I’m more than willing to go to places and talk to people who believe that I am an illegal alien, who deserves to be jailed. I want to look them in the eye and say: ‘What makes you think I’m any different from you?’ I think for our generation immigration rights is a civil rights issue.” He has already, unsurprisingly, faced racist comments, with people online telling him to “go home”. “I think, which home?” he says. “My home is 30 blocks away. I’m home right now. Where do you want me to go?”
Kira Cochrane, The Guardian