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My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant
June 22, 2011 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has reported on the Virginia Tech Shootings for the Washington Post, interviewed Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker(previously), and explored the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C. He is also an undocumented immigrant.
posted by ghharr (51 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Better get those documents!
posted by Renoroc at 8:50 AM on June 22, 2011


At the risk of having rotten fruit thrown at me, he certainly seems well-documented.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:55 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


This article is moving and well-written, but when translated into neutral argument-style language, it's a little creepy. The claim seems to be "when people are as successful in America as I am, they deserve not to get deported. For evidence, here is a list of my accomplishments." I'm not sure that sounds nearly as comforting to an undocumented Filipino who cleans houses for a living.
posted by nasreddin at 8:58 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


That article is heartbreaking.
posted by Dr. Eigenvariable at 9:00 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Nasreddin, I think the claim is more like, "I have lived in America since early childhood. I consider America to be my home and country. I am peaceful, law abiding (aside from immigration issues), and as productive as anyone could hope in a capitalist country, but America does not think of me as her own. There are many other undocumented immigrants in the same boat. Does this change your opinion on immigration? Does it challenge your assumptions? Does the system seem fair? In what way could any sane system label me Filipino when I'm American to the bone? I hope this information has a positive impact on people in my situation."
posted by jsturgill at 9:10 AM on June 22, 2011 [19 favorites]


... and a reminder that many children are brought across borders when they are too young to be complicit in the initial unlawful action. Immigration debates often fail to address such cases.
posted by lily_bart at 9:18 AM on June 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


So no one actually validates that a SSN matches up to the name? And some random dude out there is getting money credited to them for social security?
posted by smackfu at 9:18 AM on June 22, 2011


The USCIS and American immigration laws are some of the worst cases of American exceptionalism and probably the foundation for the stereotype among foreigners. It's just piles and piles and piles of documentation to prove that x is legitimate, y is legitimate, you're not a criminal, that you didn't just get married for a green card.

Like I'd want to sneak into a country to be paid $7.25/hr for a menial service position and no public health care.
posted by Talez at 9:19 AM on June 22, 2011


Coming from a European background I'm used to fairly centralised governments, so I'm always a little surprised how much you can do the US without legal status. I'm pretty sure that in The Netherlands you wouldn't be able to go to school, get a driver's license, or get a non cash-in-hand job without documents. I guess it's because of the US' federal structure (most interactions are with state rather than federal governments and those state governments don't check citizenship)
posted by atrazine at 9:21 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Talez, immigration offices around the world are usually the most unpleasant government bureaucracies to deal with because their "clients" aren't paying taxes (mostly) and don't have elected representatives to complain to.
posted by atrazine at 9:23 AM on June 22, 2011


Heartbreaking.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:24 AM on June 22, 2011


Like I'd want to sneak into a country to be paid $7.25/hr for a menial service position and no public health care.

So it's your position that no one else possibly could want to either? Please, tell us more about this American exceptionalism.
posted by Etrigan at 9:25 AM on June 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


Man, it's really too bad for Jose that his family put him in this mess; he seems to have done his share of lying or covering up over the years, but it's really troubling that adults basically set him up in an unsustainable position and said "Hey, it'll get fixed when you marry an American (woman)".
posted by dubold at 9:33 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Talez, immigration offices around the world are usually the most unpleasant government bureaucracies to deal with because their "clients" aren't paying taxes (mostly) and don't have elected representatives to complain to.

Not every immigration office has such strict requirements, strict quotas and such backward ass policies about keeping families apart. The immigrant visa/non-immigrant visa is quite possibly the worst system ever established and requires people to do crazy things to work within the rules but not spend long and undetermined amounts of time apart.

Instead of keeping skilled graduates after graduation the USG seems dead set on kicking them out. They give them the most marginal of legal employment opportunities to try and somehow fluke their way into a job in competitive fields and possibly get a H1-B which are then arbitrarily capped to far less than they need to be.

This is vastly different from my experience back home of many co-workers that worked 20 hours a week on their student visa while studying and then convert to PR on a subclass 885 once they graduate and moved up the ladder within the company.

So it's your position that no one else possibly could want to either? Please, tell us more about this American exceptionalism.

If I was a poor economic migrant sneaking into a country I'd go to Canada, Australia, The UK or any other first world country that has a decent minimum wage and health system. This has nothing to do with my not needing a last resort. It's about there being far better last resorts out there and the US thinking it's the best one that people are going to go directly toward.
posted by Talez at 9:43 AM on June 22, 2011


Like I'd want to sneak into a country to be paid $7.25/hr for a menial service position and no public health care.

It's better than being surrounded by constant violence, and it's way better than the kind of money many people make (if they can find jobs at all) in their home countries. And as for health care, even the bare minimum at an American community clinic may provide a much higher standard of care than you might find in a poor rural area elsewhere.

Check out the Immigration episode (201) of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days (available on Netflix and On Demand) for an example. Yeah, he gets a bit sensational, but you can see firsthand where the family in question came from, and it's... something else.
posted by Madamina at 9:43 AM on June 22, 2011


Instead of keeping skilled graduates after graduation the USG seems dead set on kicking them out.

Perhaps this is because the United States government as an official policy has deemed the maintenence of friendly relations with other nations and the public diplomacy benefits of the foreign student experience of greater value than filling limited US employment opportunities with non-Americans?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:51 AM on June 22, 2011


The USCIS and American immigration laws are some of the worst cases of American exceptionalism and probably the foundation for the stereotype among foreigners.

On the other hand, the US is also one of the only countries that offers citizenship to anyone who's born here.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:53 AM on June 22, 2011


That was an incredibly brave piece to write. I hope things work out well for him and the tens of thousands of people in similar situations. I know a lot of undocumented kids, and it is just a really tough and unfair situation to be in; people like the author are exactly the kind of people we need as citizens.
posted by Forktine at 9:54 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's better than being surrounded by constant violence, and it's way better than the kind of money many people make (if they can find jobs at all) in their home countries. And as for health care, even the bare minimum at an American community clinic may provide a much higher standard of care than you might find in a poor rural area elsewhere.

I'm not saying people shouldn't try to sneak into the US or anywhere else for that matter. If they need a better life they need a better life and I fully support laws that loosen immigration and stop pants on head retarded things like mandatory detention.

I'm saying that the response the importance the US places to screening out and weeding out undesirables is extremely disproportionate to the actual benefits illegal immigrants receive for their troubles.
posted by Talez at 9:58 AM on June 22, 2011


So no one actually validates that a SSN matches up to the name? And some random dude out there is getting money credited to them for social security? - Anecdata, vaguely remembered from my college years: an acquaintance discovered on filing her taxes that something like four or five different people were using her SSN. And if I understood the article correctly, the author's been particularly concerned about avoiding employers using the E-Verify system.
posted by epersonae at 9:59 AM on June 22, 2011



If I was a poor economic migrant sneaking into a country I'd go to Canada, Australia, The UK or any other first world country that has a decent minimum wage and health system.


Okay, but if you're a poor economic migrant, how do you get there? It can be expensive enough getting smuggled across the US/Mexican border, and now you're saying they should add cross-country driving or boat/plane rides into the mix?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:12 AM on June 22, 2011


MetaFilter: as productive as anyone could hope in a capitalist country.
posted by The Tensor at 10:16 AM on June 22, 2011


So no one actually validates that a SSN matches up to the name? And some random dude out there is getting money credited to them for social security? - Anecdata, vaguely remembered from my college years: an acquaintance discovered on filing her taxes that something like four or five different people were using her SSN. And if I understood the article correctly, the author's been particularly concerned about avoiding employers using the E-Verify system.

I was under the impression from the article, perhaps incorrect, that the SSN he had was actually his....it was just (correctly) flagged as a non-citizen's.
posted by mreleganza at 10:18 AM on June 22, 2011


Okay, but if you're a poor economic migrant, how do you get there? It can be expensive enough getting smuggled across the US/Mexican border, and now you're saying they should add cross-country driving or boat/plane rides into the mix?

Why not? They already get to Chicago en masse. Why not just take it the next step further? The large majority of the US/Canadian border is undefended and unfenced.
posted by Talez at 10:27 AM on June 22, 2011


Coming from a European background I'm used to fairly centralised governments, so I'm always a little surprised how much you can do the US without legal status. I'm pretty sure that in The Netherlands you wouldn't be able to go to school, get a driver's license, or get a non cash-in-hand job without documents. I guess it's because of the US' federal structure (most interactions are with state rather than federal governments and those state governments don't check citizenship)

Yes-it's a Federalism issue, but it's more specific. Some (many?) vocal Americans are crazy-touchy about some weird invisible "federal" lines they won't cross. I was born and raised in the US, but am also a Canadian citizen, so I have a "Certificate of Canadian Citizenship"-a national ID card-that has my picture and other stuff on it. A National ID Card is third-rail-politics kind of stuff in the US. Which seems odd to me because (besides the fact that the photo on my Canadian ID is from when I was 4 yrs old) we have passports and SS cards and taxes and databases of state drivers license numbers...and and and.
posted by atomicstone at 10:29 AM on June 22, 2011


Nice. Now all we need do is make those here illegally show and prove they can publish, work, earn royalties, and behave and then they can stay here. Toss out all the others.
posted by Postroad at 10:36 AM on June 22, 2011


I'm horrified that this guy decided to come out of the closet. Obviously now he's going to get booted out of this country forever. I get making a point for the news, but fucking up his life forever by outing himself as illegal... yikes.

I also second everyone who is all, "Hey, it's not his fault his parents shoved him in here illegally and then he had no way to remedy the problem." I really wish there was some way to fix this "born elsewhere, raised here, pretty much can't ever get citizenship" problem too. And marrying an American, as a friend of mine could tell you, ain't that easy either.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:45 AM on June 22, 2011


I really wish there was some way to fix this "born elsewhere, raised here, pretty much can't ever get citizenship" problem too.

Like the DREAM Act?
posted by ghharr at 10:48 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why not? They already get to Chicago en masse. Why not just take it the next step further? The large majority of the US/Canadian border is undefended and unfenced.

Is your argument that the millions of undocumented immigrants who come to the U.S. (instead of one of the countries you appear to think would be better for them) are too lazy to go to Canada, or merely too stupid to understand how horrible the U.S. actually is?
posted by Etrigan at 10:49 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


If I was a poor economic migrant sneaking into a country I'd go to Canada, Australia, The UK or any other first world country that has a decent minimum wage and health system.

Do those countries provide those benefits to illegal immirgrants?
posted by smackfu at 10:57 AM on June 22, 2011


"Like the DREAM Act?"

Hah. Yeah. I wish that was gonna happen.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:58 AM on June 22, 2011


Is your argument that the millions of undocumented immigrants who come to the U.S. (instead of one of the countries you appear to think would be better for them) are too lazy to go to Canada, or merely too stupid to understand how horrible the U.S. actually is?

Stupid? I'd probably call it ignorance. After all, the America Dream™ brand has been strong for 50 years.

Do those countries provide those benefits to illegal immirgrants?

In Australia it's pretty trivial with a fake Medicare card since most doctors take their benefit at the time the bill is paid these days and the hospitals bulk bill medicare directly. I was never asked for my ID or proof of citizenship when I went to hospital.
posted by Talez at 11:01 AM on June 22, 2011


Coming from a European background I'm used to fairly centralised governments, so I'm always a little surprised how much you can do the US without legal status. I'm pretty sure that in The Netherlands you wouldn't be able to go to school, get a driver's license, or get a non cash-in-hand job without documents.

Recently here in norway there was the case of Madina Salamova, which sounds very similar to this one, she got into the country with her parents when she was young, graduated high school and university and eventually wrote a best seller book about her experience. She got deported as soon as her identity was established, though, and it was a huge issue here. The cynical me would say that it was a huge issue because she was white, pretty and college educated, she got back into norway with a work visa within a couple of weeks...

It's a difficult issue, how are you supposed to evaluate whether an illegal immigrant should stay or not? Isn't that the purpose of current visas? Should children of illegal immigrants get any special treatment? There's already anchor babies, wouldn't special treatment here promote even more illegal immigration?

Also, aren't most "first-world" immigration laws nowadays are more geared towards deterrence than anything else?
posted by palbo at 11:13 AM on June 22, 2011


s/are more geared/more geared/
posted by palbo at 11:14 AM on June 22, 2011


So no one actually validates that a SSN matches up to the name? And some random dude out there is getting money credited to them for social security?


The accountant/lawyer for the small restaurant I work at says there are some SSNs that have as many as 50,000 people using them.
posted by timdicator at 11:34 AM on June 22, 2011


atomicstone: Were you born in Canada, or naturalised? As far as I know (and have been very frustrated by), Canada doesn't have any national ID for natural-born citizens.
posted by jb at 12:10 PM on June 22, 2011


I was granted citizenship as a little kid through my canadian born father. So, maybe it serves as my I'd papers. But it's got my photo on it. And it's among the things I needed to get an (overpriced) Canadian passport.
posted by atomicstone at 12:18 PM on June 22, 2011


Nasreddin, I think the claim is more like, "I have lived in America since early childhood. I consider America to be my home and country. I am peaceful, law abiding (aside from immigration issues), and as productive as anyone could hope in a capitalist country, but America does not think of me as her own. There are many other undocumented immigrants in the same boat. Does this change your opinion on immigration? Does it challenge your assumptions? Does the system seem fair? In what way could any sane system label me Filipino when I'm American to the bone? I hope this information has a positive impact on people in my situation."

I see Nasreddin's point, actually. Because even if the claim is as you say it is, the evidence he marshals is that he has been exceptionally successful. If it is a gateway to changing opinions that ultimately grows to include folks in menial jobs etc, then okay, but I think part of the problem is that we need to uncouple citizenship from ideas of morality (including economic "productivity" in all its moral guises). Citizens can be criminals, can be addicts, can be unproductive, can be . . . whatever they want, without it affecting their citizenship. Part of what we criminalize when we criminalize people, and when we carry forward this narrative about successful people who are undocumented, is the idea that citizenship is about morality. It isn't, any more than marriage is necessarily about love, as opposed to a state-sanctioned economic contract that organizes society.
posted by liketitanic at 1:45 PM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Related links:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/22/washington-post-jose-antonio-vargas-immigrant_n_882237.html
http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/my-legal-editors-dream/
http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2011/06/legal-risks-vargas-immigration-revelation/39138/
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:05 PM on June 22, 2011


Talez: "
If I was a poor economic migrant sneaking into a country I'd go to Canada, Australia, The UK or any other first world country that has a decent minimum wage and health system.
"

"No bread? Let them eat cake!"
posted by falameufilho at 3:24 PM on June 22, 2011


Talez: "Why not? They already get to Chicago en masse. Why not just take it the next step further? The large majority of the US/Canadian border is undefended and unfenced."

JESUS CHRIST YOU STILL INSIST ON IT.
posted by falameufilho at 3:26 PM on June 22, 2011


In addition to the other achievements listed, Jose's work on HIV/AIDS in D.C. for the Washington Post inspired the documentary The Other City.
posted by wherever, whatever at 5:55 PM on June 22, 2011


Having spent four hours at the INS today(although I passed my citizenship test and interview easily, yay), my heart breaks for this guy. The hurdles for legal immigrants are already so difficult.
posted by sawdustbear at 6:23 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm horrified that this guy decided to come out of the closet. Obviously now he's going to get booted out of this country forever. I get making a point for the news, but fucking up his life forever by outing himself as illegal... yikes.

I suspect in some ways it's better to leave on your own terms than it is to be suddenly discovered and booted out. Plus, I think it's clear from the article that it's a lot of pressure for him to live under. Not to mention his very clear understanding of the risks that others are taking for him.
posted by anastasiav at 7:11 PM on June 22, 2011


Jose Antonio Vargas has a new web-page called Define American. On the blog today, there's a post about the whole question of emphasizing Vargas's remarkable accomplishments:
For every Jose Antonio Vargas or Ernesto, we are very likely to encounter DREAMers who are not near the top of their class, but they are here at any rate because their parents are dreamers as well. Their parents’ dreams may appear simple and clichéd, but they are true nonetheless: to make an honest living for an honest day’s work, to put food on the table, to be part of a safe community, to instill strong family values, and to send their children to school out of hope for a better tomorrow. Like Jose and Ernesto, they too are remarkable for getting their families here out of sheer determination to lead a productive life.
posted by craichead at 9:11 PM on June 22, 2011


^"immigration offices around the world are usually the most unpleasant government bureaucracies to deal with because their "clients" aren't paying taxes (mostly)"

Around the world, most people dealing with immigration offices are trying to get work visas or citizenship. If there's an income tax, they're paying it or going to pay it, because by definition they're not trying to be paid under the table.

BTW, Talez, changes to the Australian skilled migration scheme have made it considerably harder to get residency (in 2010 they updated the Skilled Occupation List and it's quite a bit shorter than it used to be - and there's a new points system to be implemented in July.) All the hysteria about boat people - who are, of course, asylum seekers, not work visa applicants - has resulted in increased stringency in the student and work visa programs.
posted by gingerest at 10:03 PM on June 22, 2011




If it is a gateway to changing opinions that ultimately grows to include folks in menial jobs etc, then okay, but I think part of the problem is that we need to uncouple citizenship from ideas of morality (including economic "productivity" in all its moral guises).

The word you're looking for is "justice," not morality. Citizenship, and the lack thereof, is a byproduct of laws. One of the goals of laws should be, in my opinion, promoting, creating, enforcing, and sustaining justice.

I think his article creates a persuasive argument that the current legal situation he and others are in is unjust. Justice is not a concept that needs to be uncoupled from citizenship, or any other legal system. There's no need to bring morality into his argument, although there may be a moral component for some people that directs their own thoughts and opinions.
posted by jsturgill at 9:43 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


The word you're looking for is "justice," not morality.

No, the word I was looking for was "morality."
posted by liketitanic at 3:39 PM on June 24, 2011


If I'm under 15, and my parents get me involved in a war as a combatant, then the UN considers me to be a "child soldier" and a victim of war who needs to be protected. According to the UN, I should also not be charged with any war crimes.

If I am a child under 15, and my parents move me illegally into the United States, I am the one deemed to have committed a crime and I'm punished for it. This is not justice.

Of course, the US is also prosecuting child soldiers, so maybe they don't care about protecting children.
posted by jb at 4:33 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Liketitanic, apologies for the tone of my post. Can I try again?

His success story is useful because it is a counter-narrative. People who seek to punish illegal immigrants and lock down our borders promote their cause through a narrative that states illegal aliens are lazy, criminal, burdens on society (taking more out of the system, such as through emergency room visits, than they put in), and unwilling to adapt to our way of life (both our language and our generally agreed-upon moral values). His article presents an alternative narrative for each of those points.

Other issues aren't addressed by him here, but it's a bit much to ask one article to do everything. I think he accomplishes quite a bit, and that bit is important and valid.

My point about your word choice was not just snark. The civil rights movement in the United States used civil disobedience to highlight the unjust nature of Jim Crow laws. There's a moral component that can be brought into play in any argument, depending on how you want to spin your rhetoric, but the basic fact of the American system is that while the rule of law is paramount, laws themselves are not above the pale. Laws can be overturned, selectively enforced, replaced by new laws, or interpreted in ways that they were never intended when they were signed into law. There is a long and vibrant history of revising the law of the land that is one of the strong points of the American way of doing things.

Calling out a law or legal system for being unjust and in need of change is not always an act of short-sighted moral outrage that has no place in the US or its legal system. Quite the opposite! It is one of the fundamental, necessary engines of change that allow for the legal system to potentially correct itself. You do the article a disservice when you paint it in a light that is reductive and inaccurate. You may continue to stand by your word choice if you wish, but I don't think it's accurate.
posted by jsturgill at 12:20 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


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