How the Most Famous Undocumented Immigrant Makes America Home
There are those all too rare occasions when reading a memoir is as inspiring, educational and imperative as it is entertaining and informative. Such is the case with “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” by journalist and immigrant activist Jose Antoni Vargas. Like much literature now, mostly fiction, Vargas is responding to the current political climate in which some bad actors are waging war on humanity, with little or no regard for contributing members of our society. Some of this is done out of politics as theater, but most of it is out of a lack of empathy and sheer ignorance. Vargas, who was born in the Philippines, came to America when he was twelve to live with his maternal grandparents and assuming all was normal and legit about his arrival to and status in the U.S. It wasn’t until several years later when he applied for a driver’s license, that he was informed that his papers were fake and he was an “illegal.” Thus began many, many years of struggling, in one way or another, with his status; of feeling like he had to hide who he was, misrepresenting documents and himself, personally and professionally. He was forced to learn at a young age what it is to be the other in America; to be other and living a lie. Those feelings followed him through high school, college and into a successful journalism career in San Francisco, New York and D.C.
“For more than a decade, I carried the weigh of trying to succeed in my profession - I need that byline, I need that story, I need to be seen - while wanting to be invisible so I didn’t draw too much attention to myself ... There comes a moment in each of our lives when we must confront the central truth in order for life to go on. For my life to go on, I had to get at the truth about where I came from. On that August afternoon, working on the biggest assignment of my life, I realized that I could no longer live with the easy answer. I could no longer live with my lies. To free myself - in fact, to face myself - I had to write my story.”
There is no easy way for him, and others in a similar scenario, to just change his status. There is no document to sign, no class to register for, no wand to wave. He is in limbo as far as DACA is concerned - being one or two years too old to qualify as a Dreamer. It was his internal and external struggles that ultimately emboldened Vargas to out himself as undocumented, sympathize with others in similar situation and take up their cause to be understood. Although he “freed himself up” through truth, it did not make his situation necessarily easier. He became a target, and still is. He has to be mindful of where he travels and cannot stay in one residence for too long. He fears for his deportation and the risk to his family. Making matters worse, he has not seen his mother since he left the Philippines. He can’t go there without risking never returning to America, and his mother cannot come to him. But what freedom he has experienced through truth, he continues to embrace and use for the common good of others.
Vargas makes it clear early on in “Dear America” that it is not a book about the politics of immigration, but rather “a book about homelessness in the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants find themselves in.” It is a book about lies and truth, and feeling like you have to pass as something else in order to maintain. Beyond all that, “Dear America” is as much about the kindness of friends and strangers as it is about Vargas’s challenges and causes. It is absolutely remarkable how much of Vargas’s success is attributed to these little moments when people in his life, as a child and adult, stepped up to inform, advice and help him, even at great risk to themselves.
“At every challenging, complicated juncture of m life - getting to college, getting a job, getting a driver’s license so I could have a valid proof of identification so I could get a job, keeping the job - a stranger who did not remain a stranger saved me.”
It is these life affirming struggles, successes and stories that permeate this short, but powerful memoir. This deeply personal and readable book delves into one of the defining issues of our time. It should be read now. It should be read by all.