Since reading Jose Antonio Vargas’ article “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” in the June 22nd magazine section of the New York Times[i], I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of bravery, sacrifice, and integrity. I’ve also reflected on how we define what it means to be a citizen and American. For those who missed this article and its subsequent aftermath –Mr. Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, “outs” himself as an undocumented immigrant who was sent to live in the United States 18 years ago –when he was just a child. It wasn’t until he was sixteen that he realized was undocumented. Educated in the United States, and a productive tax-paying individual –Mr. Vargas’s journalistic writing has contributed much to how readers across the country see and understand the social world, so much so that he received a Pulitzer Prize. While he’s received a litany of critiques and attacks for his NY Magazine story (see Atlantic Wire Article ) that question his integrity, why he’s ‘coming out’ now, and the very work they valued before they knew —these same critiques fail to acknowledge that Mr. Vargas is just one of millions of immigrants caught in a system that doesn’t allow them to come out of the shadows. If we’re truthful about our history, we must acknowledge that we live in a counry that since its founding, has depended on immigrants for its economic viability and prosperity.
Vargas is an example of the millions of children who did not make the decision to migrate to the United States. Through no fault of their own, they are forced to live in the shadows, hoping and praying that US laws will change and provide them with a pathway to legalization and citizenship. As the late Tam Tran chronicled in her Short film, Lost & Found: Story of a DREAM Act Student , these individuals sacrifice so much in order to earn their education, and simply create an opportunities for themselves and their families. The Dream Act is only one legislative initiative that provides a pathway to legalization for these individuals –whereby through participation in military or education they can earn a green card. While many are incensed by Mr. Vargas’ admission –they do not want to acknowledge we have no legal systems or initiatives in place that provide a pathway amnesty and legalization . What Mr. Vargas’ personal history should demonstrate to all of us is that if given the opportunity these youth can speak new truths, make new contributions, and change the world in positive ways.
So here we are, celebrating the 4th of July, and lost amidst the hoopla of Independence Day festivities, which now includes fireworks, county fairs, parades, baseball, and all other things ‘American’ is what we are commemorating –the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the face of tyranny and oppression, the founding fathers declared their independence from their colonizers –Great Britain. These men, all undocumented immigrants themselves, invaded and stole this land from the Indigenous populations living here for Great Britain. However, in the face of being disenfranchised and oppressed by the tyranny of the throne, the founding fathers declared their independence. In the declaration they say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This simple passage so important, but so often forgotten, because if we had to stay true to these ideals –we’d have to show greater amounts of humanity towards people we want to ignore.
History shows us that in order to actually live up to those principles of liberty and equality groups have fought for this country to live up to this principle. In a speech delivered on July 5th 1853, Frederick Douglas asserted that,
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. [ii]
In this speech, Frederick Douglas calls out the hypocrisy of a nation that celebrates freedom while simultaneously oppressing blacks and enslaving them. While formal slavery has been abolished, that does not mean the system that motivated the need for cheap labor to increase corporate profit has disappeared. Our country simultaneously criminalizes undocumented immigrants despite the fact that we are economically dependent on immigrant labor to function. All we need to do is look at the consequences of the recent Georgia anti-immigration law that left farms in that state with a labor shortage.[iii] We want food, clothes, and electronics –faster, cheaper, and available at the snap of our finger, but fail to acknowledge that in order for that to happen we depend on immigrant labor. The press constantly perpetuates a belief that immigrants are ‘taking American jobs’ which ignores the fact that most undocumented immigrants work in jobs American’s don’t want.
As pundits debate Mr.Vargas’ article, some using him as an example for abusing “the system” and others saying his lies constitute a breach of journalistic ethics, maybe we should consider a few other questions and ideas. When looking at the breadth and depth of Mr Vargas’ work, maybe we should consider that his experiences provided a unique lens through which we can understand the social world. Let’s be real –as much as journalists try to uphold this ideal that they’re objective –they’re not. What they choose to write, how they write, and the words they use as they select the ‘angle’ for their story are completely subjective. Jose Antonio Vargas’ work was enhanced by his life experiences not diminished. In his work, he did not fabricate facts, make up stories, or create news stories while working for various news agencies –he reported the events of the day. Finally, we need to ask, are there systems in place that allow individuals to truly disclose who they are –whether that’s based on gender, race, sexuality, or citizenship?
Maybe what detractors of Mr. Vargas need to really focus on is why they’re so threatened and uncomfortable about a man who’s finally allowing himself to live his truth regardless of the consequences.
Mr. Vargas, on this Independence day, I want to tell you that I admire your strength and bravery. I think you define what it means to be American.