Prior to reading Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas, my perspective of our current immigration debates has been vehemently furious, yet not surprising at all once you look back at the history of immigration in America. For me, it’s a challenge to understand a system in which the majority, many of whose family immigrated to America, has a say in who is labeled as an “alien,” an “illegal,” or an “undocumented immigrant,” without first acknowledging someone as a human being first. My personal knowledge and understanding of immigration in the US started with myself. Although I did not enter the country “illegally,” I was adopted and naturalized (granted citizenship after fulfilling the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965) when I was a baby from Asuncion, Paraguay. Because I grew up in Berkeley, California, in a very diverse home, my deep sense of curiosity about our social, political, and cultural contexts which has directly impacted people of color, including myself, has always remained a part of my identity.
Since the 1960s, our government has not only admitted but has also encouraged and supported multiculturalism although it is still a very controversial issue today. However, we cannot obliterate that America is a country of full immigrants from different countries, and ethnic groups, with different languages, educational backgrounds, moral values, and religions. For this reason, it is fundamentally important to understand the role of immigration in the United States which has shaped this country as a nation since it was colonized over 400 years ago.
Jose Antonio Vargas was born in Antipolo, Philippines, in February of 1981. Today, he is known to some as “the most famous illegal in America.” In his memoir, Dear America, Vargas tells his personal journey about the difficulties of living in America without legal documentation of citizenship, but how he made it possible to find his voice as a journalist within the systematic struggles of an undocumented citizen. At age 12, Vargas was sent to the US by his mother, where he lived with his grandparents; Lola and Lolo, in Mountain View, California. Like any other teenager in the States, at age 16 Vargas went to the DMV office with high hopes of applying for a driver’s permit. Upon applying, he was denied and told by the DMV employee that his documents; a high school ID and green card, were fake and was then asked to leave the office immediately.
Confused and anxious, later that same day he confronts his grandfather, Lolo, about his green card in hopes that this was all just a big misunderstanding. However, to Vargas’s surprise, Lolo confirmed that his green card was, in fact, fake, and told Jose in Tagalog, “don’t show it [the card] to people … you’re not supposed to be here.” From the moment Jose discovered his true legitimate status as undocumented, Vargas made it a point to try even harder to be successful and hoped to somehow earn his citizenship. According to his mentors whom he befriended and eventually adopted as family, he excelled as a student, and with their help managed to find a full scholarship to San Francisco State, where he won two internships at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. Although he lost one internship at the Seattle Times because he told the truth about his legal status, when The Washington Post offered a position, he lied on his application and managed to successfully pass with fake documents.
In 2007, Vargas won the Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Washington Post that covered the Virginia Tech shooting, but he feared his rising fame would lead to him being found out about. Eventually, Vargas left the Washington Post for the Huffington Post and soon then after for the New Yorker, but the emotional toll that success brought took a toll on him and left feeling isolated and terrible about his lies. In June 2011, Vargas reached his breaking point and decided to write a “coming out” piece in The New York Times titled: My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant. From then on, Vargas became an activist and advocate for the undocumented and eventually founded a non-profit organization called Define American. In 2014, after traveling to Texas to protest the Obama administration’s detention centers full of unaccompanied children, he was detained but fortunately released soon after. His new book characterized his life from the point of discovering his illegal status to the present day in three conditions: hiding, lying, and passing, which to his benefit created the structure of his latest memoir: Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.
Overall, I found this book fascinating. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I started reading it, but once I did, I couldn’t put the book down. For me, this book brought more enlightenment and understanding from a perceptive I’m somewhat familiar with as far as growing up and trying to figure out my place in society. The fact of the matter is from my understanding is that every race has been designed to create a separation of people by their privileges, solely based on what they look like. This notion is even more interesting to me since I was adopted and have had the privileged ability to be accommodated for things, I never thought I could be affected by simply because of my legal status. Although this book didn’t change my perspective much, I was able to take away the importance I believe Vargas was trying to illustrate: lying for a greater good. Lying in a nation who cannot even recognize you as a human being, I believe Vargas used his lies to hide the underlying truth of what being “American,” is: an undocumented civilization.
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