Jose Antonio Vargas: My Life as an Undocumented Citizen

In the lastest issue of New York Times Magazine, writer Jose Antonio Vargas (who wrote the sublime piece on Mark Zuckerberg last year) bares it all and reveals the incredible story of how he arrived to America and has been living here as an illegal immigrant.

This paragraph sets the stage, and thumps the heart:

One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. “This is fake,” she whispered. “Don’t come back here again.”

His approach to life is one of fear and hesitation:

On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream…But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me…

I can relate to the challenge of learning the language, English, as Vargas explains here (I used to watch Home Improvement as well):

My first challenge was the language. Though I learned English in the Philippines, I wanted to lose my accent. During high school, I spent hours at a time watching television (especially “Frasier,” “Home Improvement” and reruns of “The Golden Girls”) and movies (from “Goodfellas” to “Anne of Green Gables”), pausing the VHS to try to copy how various characters enunciated their words. At the local library, I read magazines, books and newspapers — anything to learn how to write better. Kathy Dewar, my high-school English teacher, introduced me to journalism. From the moment I wrote my first article for the student paper, I convinced myself that having my name in print — writing in English, interviewing Americans — validated my presence here.

Again and again, Vargas reiterates how difficult the deception was:

For more than a decade of getting part-time and full-time jobs, employers have rarely asked to check my original Social Security card. When they did, I showed the photocopied version, which they accepted. Over time, I also began checking the citizenship box on my federal I-9 employment eligibility forms. (Claiming full citizenship was actually easier than declaring permanent resident “green card” status, which would have required me to provide an alien registration number.)

This deceit never got easier. The more I did it, the more I felt like an impostor, the more guilt I carried — and the more I worried that I would get caught. But I kept doing it. I needed to live and survive on my own, and I decided this was the way.

So why come forward like this? Vargas explains:

So I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection. I’ve reached out to former bosses­ and employers and apologized for misleading them — a mix of humiliation and liberation coming with each disclosure. All the people mentioned in this article gave me permission to use their names. I’ve also talked to family and friends about my situation and am working with legal counsel to review my options. I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story.

Good for him. I imagine a tremendous burden has been lifted. Earlier I wrote about liberation. I think Vargas feels so liberated now. Let’s hope he gets the chance to stay in America and continue doing great work in journalism. You should read his entire remarkable story, in which he reveals his progression from his work on a high school newspaper  to work at the Huffington Post and Washington Post, to where he stands today. Amazing.


One thought on “Jose Antonio Vargas: My Life as an Undocumented Citizen

  1. Ever since I employed and went to bat for an immigrant, I’ve been conscious of how insecure and rejected they are made to feel. The INS’s challenge of being a neutral processor of applications, while at the same trying to meet quota limits, supply the economic needs of industry (H1B etc.) AND be an enforcer of criminal behavior by both workers and the employers who hire them, is impossible for any agency to handle consistently… because their responsibilities conflict.

    I loved reading Jose’s story and really appreciate the post. We no longer want or welcome the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.

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