Jose Antonio Vargas. Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. HarperCollins, 2018. [Advance Reader’s Edition] (231 pages)
The fraying of political discourse by its abstract and categorizing rhetoric is a dehumanizing cycle that needs to be seriously reconstructed. Books like this fulfill the criteria needed to invert the current political mindset, having the potential to influence our souls as much as our terminology. In fact, this is what makes this book so remarkable, as words and thinking are really two different expressions of the same human phenomena, and Vargas compels us to consider both in one.
In “Dear America,” Vargas not only invites us into his life, to glimpse a bit of his journey from the inside through his memoir/editorial storytelling, but he completely recategorizes the mental framework by which we discuss one another. Terms such as “home” in reference to migration, and calling out “power” as the ultimate essence of what underpins “legality” are really compelling ways of speaking the truth, and should cause us all to consider carefully what we’re really talking about when we’re talking about immigration. To frame the kindness of strangers as a “salvation,” evokes the sacred and numinous quality of human compassion, and encourages us all to reach to our deeper purposes over and above our impulsive fears.
“But what about the borders? What about our country? What about national sovereignty?”
Regarding all of the binary and linear controls we have established to secure our “safety” and “sovereignty,” may we be more moved by listening deeply to the human spirit that resides within us all, that transcends any man-made boundaries, that can envision a time when borders are mere relics of a darker time when we once believed, archaically, that others are not us.
America is not a land of one race or one class of men… America is not bound by geographical latitudes… America is in the heart… – Carlos Bulosan
But this is not a book about the politics of immigration. This book–at its core–is not about immigration at all. This book is about homelessness, not in a traditional sense, but the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in. This book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by; about passing as an American and as a contributing citizen; about families, keeping them together and having to make new ones when you can’t. This book is about constantly hiding from the government and, in the process, hiding from ourselves. This book is about what it means to not have a home. (xv)
PART I: LYING
Separation not only divides families; separation buries emotion, buries it so far down you can’t touch it. I don’t think I would ever love Mama again in the childlike, carefree, innocent way I loved her while writing that letter. I don’t know where that young boy went. (16)
PART II: PASSING
I swallowed American culture before I learned how to chew it. (47)
Passing as an American was my way of exerting control over a life I had no control over. It was not my decision to come here, acquire fake papers, and lie my way into being in America. But I was here. At the very least, I felt that I had to control what kind of American I was going to be, what kind of cultural connections I was going to make, which led to what kind of mask I had to wear. (55)
If I was not considered an American because I didn’t have the right papers, then practicing journalism–writing in English, interviewing Americans, making sense of the people and places around me–was my way of writing myself into America. In the beginning, writing was only a way of passing as an American. I never expected it to be an identity. Above all else, I write to exist, to make myself visible. (58)
The problem with living outside the law is that you no longer have its protection. – Truman Capote
I never felt protected by the law. | I didn’t understand why the law was the way it was. | To pass as an American, I always had to question the law. Not just break it, not just circumvent it, but question it. I had to interrogate how laws are created, how legality must be seen through the prism of who is defining what is legal for whom. I had to realize that throughout American history, legality has forever been a construct of power. (73)
| Lynchings, violent seizures of indigenous land, barring women from voting–all of that was legal. until very recently, marriage between people of the same sex was not only considered immoral, it was illegal. “Separate but equal” was legal. Jim Crow as the law of the land. (73)
cf. the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided That the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.
Approved, June 2, 1924. June 2, 1924. [H. R. 6355.] [Public, No. 175.]
SIXTY-EIGHTH CONGRESS. Sess. I. CHS. 233. 1924.
See House Report No. 222, Certificates of Citizenship to Indians, 68th Congress, 1st Session, Feb. 22, 1924.
Note: This statute has been codified in the United States Code at Title 8, Sec. 1401(b).
cf. the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
cf. the Naturalization Act of 1790.
At the age of nineteen, when I started lying about who I was so I could pass as an American, I did not have any authority. The only history I knew of was my own, which I was still struggling to make sense of. But after watching the interview and reading got transcript, I decided that I must not play “the perfect victim”–in my mind, “victim” and “illegal” were one and the same. I convinced myself that someone, somewhere, somehow created “the master narrative” of illegality: human beings identified as “illegals,” as if one’s existence can be deemed unlawful; “illegals” serving Americans, either by babysitting their kids, or trimming their lawns, or constructing their houses, or harvesting their crops–the images and visuals perpetuated by the news media, corroborated in TV shows and movies; human beings being told what they cannot do and where they cannot go. Understanding the experience of black people in America–why black was created so people could be white–pried open how Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups have been historically oppressed through laws and systems that had little or nothing to do with what was right. White as the default, white as the center, white as the norm, is the central part of (77) the master narrative. The centrality of whiteness–how it constructed white versus black, legal versus illegal–hurts not only people of color who aren’t white but also white people who can’t carry the burden of what they’ve constructed. (78)
Searching for Morrison led me to discover the work of black poets like Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar, to the writings of black writers like Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin. I cite their race because it’s a crucial element of their power. Black writers gave me permission to question America. Black writers challenged me to find my place here and created a space for me to claim. Reading black writers opened doors to other writers of color, specifically Asian and Latino authors (Carlos Bulosan, Sandra Cisneros, Arundhati Roy, to name just a few) whose work was often even more marginalized than that of black writers. (78)
You have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not its idea of you. – James Baldwin
I wanted no part of the master narrative bout who the “illegal” is. | I would take refuge in creating my own. (78)
At every challenging, complicated, and complicating juncture of my life–…a stranger who did not remain a stranger saved me. | I use that word deliberately, because that was what each of them did, even if they didn’t know what they were doing. (93)
| Saved. | They saved me. (93)
If every one of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in our country carried the kindness of at least five people in their lives who had helped them–the friend, the co-worker, the classmate, the neighbor, the faith leader–then at least 66 million people are directly touched by immigration. (94)
There comes a moment in each of our lives when we must confront the central truth in order for life to go on. (110)
| 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 big-(110)gest assignment of my life, I realized that I could no longer live with the easy answer. I could no longer lie with my lies. Passing was no longer enough. Before I could write any more stories, I had to investigate my life. (111)
| To free myself–in fact, to face myself–I had to write my story. (111)
…the whole point of my planning to come out as undocumented was to marry my specific story to other stories. To complicate the narrative. To take immigration, especially unauthorized, “illegal” immigration, out of the “merit-based,” good immigrant v. bad immigrant,” “less deserving v. more deserving” framework. (114)
Many of us hold some kind of privilege and must decide when to let it go. It was time for me to risk mine. (114)
About “coming out,” which I’ve done twice in my life: It’s less about “coming out” and more about letting people in. The reality is, the closet doesn’t only hide you from strangers. The closet also hides you from the people you love. (115)
Taking a page from the playbook of the LGBTQ rights movement, we believe that you cannot change the politics of immigration until you change the culture in which immigrants are seen. Storytelling is central to our strategy: collecting stories of immigrants from all walks of life, creating original content (documentaries, databases, graphics, etc.), and leveraging stories we’ve collected and stories we’ve told to impact how news and entertainment media portray immigrants, both documented and undocumented. (120)
To an undocumented immigrant who happens to be a journalist, what has made the past few years even more maddening is how generally uninformed journalists are about immigration. With some notable exceptions–including the insightful work by Dara Lind at Vox and Cindy Carcamo at Los Angeles Times, not to mention Maria Hinojosa at NPR’s Latino USA and Univision’s Jorge Ramos, to name just a few–the mainstream media’s coverage of immigration is lackluster at best and irresponsible at worst, promoting and sustaining stereotypes while spreading misinformation. Television is the worst culprit. Facts often take a backseat to what this or that political future has to say about immigrants. Context is the (127) invisible ghost that haunts many TV segments, radio hits, and news articles. Most journalists and media influencers I’ve spoken to or have bene interviewed by do not know basic information bout immigration and how the system works–or doesn’t. (128)
Between 1965 and 2015, new immigrants and their offspring accounted for 55 percent of U.S. population growth, according to the Pew Research Center. In the next fifty years, immigrants and their offspring are expected to comprise 88 percent of our country’s total population growth. In other words, a country that’s been long characterized by its black-and-white binary now faces a far more complex and unparalleled demographic reality. (130)
Here in the U.S., the language we use to discuss immigration does not recognize the realities of our lives based on conditions that we did not create and cannot control. Why are some people called “expats” while others are called “immigrants”? What’s the difference between a “settler” and a “refugee”? Language itself is a barrier to information, a fortress against understanding the inalienable instinct of human beings to move. (137)
…this country of countries, founded on the freedom of movement, must look itself in the mirror, clearly and carefully, before determining the price and cost of who gets to be an American in a globalized and interconnected twenty-first century. This is a twenty-first-century reality that the American government, along with multinational American corporations, has largely sculpted and created, from the wars we start to the iPhones we sell to the television shows and movies we make. This is a twenty-first-century reality in which tweets and Facebook messages travel much faster and more easily than human beings. (138)
| Migration is the most natural thing people do, the root of how civilizations, nation-states, and countries were established. The difference, however, is that when white people move, it’s seen as courageous and necessary. Yet when people of color move, legally or illegally, the migration itself is sub-(138)jected to question of legality. Is it a crime? Will they assimilate? There are an estimated 258 million migrants around the world, and many of us are migrating to countries that previously colonized and imperiled us. We have a human right to move, and governments should serve that right, not limit it. The unprecedented movement of people–what some call a “global migration crisis”–is, in reality, a natural progression of history. Yes, we are here because we believe in the promise of the American Dream–the search for a better life, the challenge of dreaming big. But we are also here because you were there–the cost of Americana imperialism and globalization, the impact of economic policies and political decisions. During this volatile time in the U.S. and around the world, we need a new language around migration and the meaning of citizenship. Our survival depends on the creation and understanding of this new language. (139)
While barnstorming the country for Define American, I came to the realization that everyone feels excluded form America, even The very people whose ancestors created systems of exclusion and oppression. (167) [sic]
I wish I could say that being a human being is enough, but there are times I don’t feel like a human being. (169)
| I feel like a thing. A thing to be explained and understood, tolerated and accepted. A thing that spends too much time education people so it doesn’t have to educate itself on what it has become. I feel like a thing that can’t just be. (169)
PART III: HIDING
I am not hiding from my government. My government is hiding from me. (173)
| At least that’s how it’s felt in the past seven years, living a public life as undocumented while practicing what I call “radical transparency,” which has taken on various forms. Some people accuse me of pulling “stunts,” as if I find some kind of masochistic joy out of living in limbo. Then some people argue that I’m not radical enough, that I don’t do enough. In their minds, I should be leading rallies, participating in protests, maybe tying myself to the White House. But the only way I’ve been able to survive the discomfort and distress of the past seven years is doing what I know how to do, what Mrs. Dewar at Mountain View High School said I was good at: asking questions. (173)
It was May 2012. I prepare myself for the worst after publicly declaring my undocumented status: possible arrest and detention, at any time of any day. The only thing I didn’t prepare for was silence. (173)
After all the years of lying, after all the years of trying to pass as an American, after all the anxiety, the uncertainty, the confusion, the only response I could get from the United States government, courtesy of the ICE agent who put me hold, was “No comment.” (177)
| How do you build a life with “no comment”? (177)
I cannot vote. What ID will I use to vote? My American Express card? Though I’ve lived in this country for twenty-five years, though I pay all kinds of taxes, which I am happy and willing to pay, since I am a product of public schools and public libraries, I have no voice in the democratic process. Think of it as taxation without legalization. (181)
Together, these two bills made it easier to criminalize and deport all immigrants, documented and undocumented, and made it harder for undocumented immigrants like me to adjust our status and “get legal.” (205)
The cost of enforcing our laws and protecting our borders is almost astronomically absurd. A 2014 article published in Politico found that the U.S. government spends more money each year on border and immigration enforcement than the combined budgets of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service, and the U.S. Marshalls. Altogether, the article noted that more than $100 billion of our tax dollars have been spent on border and immigration control since 9/11. (207)
| Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the country’s largest law enforcement agency, employs an estimated sixty thousand people and operates a fleet of about 250 planes, helicopters, and drones, making it the largest law enforcement (207) air force in the world. The Border Patrol, which is part of CBP, uses a “digital wall” comprised of eight thousand cameras to monitor our southern border and parts of entries, and employs 18,500 agents on the nearly two-thousand-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border. Extending from California to Texas, about seven hundred miles of fencing that includes wire mesh, chain link, post and rail, sheet piling, and concrete barriers has been constructed at a cost of between $2.8 million and $3.9 million per mile. (208)
| And all for what? (208)
| To protect Americans from whom? (208)
| Children? (208)
Home is not something I should have to earn. (217)
| Humanity is not some box I have to check. (217)
| It occurred to me that I’d been in an intimate, long-term relationship all along. I was in a toxic, abusive, co-dependent relationship with America, and there was no getting out. (217)
Sitting alone in that cell, I concluded that none of this was an accident. None of it. You know how politicians and the news media that cover them like to say that we have a “broken immigration system”? Inside that cell I came to the conclusion that we do not have a broken immigration system. We don’t. What we’re doing-waving a “Keep Out!” flag at the Mexican border while holding up a Help pWanted sign a hundred yards in–is deliberate. Spending billions building fences and walls, locking people up like livestock, deporting people to keep the people we don’t want out, tearing families apart, breaking spirits–all of that serves a purpose. People are forced to lie, people spend years if not decades passing in some purgatory. And step by step, this immigration system is set up to do exactly what it does. (217)
Dear America, is this what you really want? Do you even know what is happening in your name? | I don’t know what else you want from us. | I don’t know what else you need us to do. (218)