Maintaining a deception for so long distorts your sense of self. You start wondering who you’ve become, and why. —Jose Antonio Vargas
It was 1993, when 12-year-old Jose Antonio Vargas, left the Philippines for the United States with the help of an “uncle.” This uncle, who in reality was a coyote whom his mother and grandfather arranged, was paid thousands of dollars. Vargas was brought to the U.S. in order to live a better life with his grandparents, Lolo (grandfather) and Lola (grandmother). When Vargas arrived, he lived in California where he went to school and started a new life.
Lolo had planned that Vargas mother would come in into the country with a tourist visa which she was not able to get. After Vargas arrived his mother was suppose to follow him, but she never did. Just like any other undocumented immigrant, Vargas had a lot of difficulty learning the difference between formal English and American slang, but his passion for language and hours of studying helped him overcome that obstacle.
When he decided to get his driver’s permit at 16, he learned about his false documents. When Vargas asked Lolo, he said that he had purchased the green card and warned Vargas not to show anyone those documents. It may have been this day that Vargas began to live in fear and become hyper-aware of nativist bigotry.
“I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it. I’ve tried. Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.”
The struggle of being an undocumented person encompasses obstacles with language, career, personal relationships, education, and so much more. As much as he hated it, Vargas and Lolo had to continue to forge documents and provide false information because of the rigid laws that prohibited him from living a meaningful life.
Vargas worked part time at Subway, then at the front desk of his town Y.M.C.A., then in a tennis club, and then in an unpaid internship at his hometown newspaper, The Mountain View Voice, where he worked hard to get a better position. Vargas lived in guilt.
Vargas had another secret, which he revealed in High School. He is gay. He was discriminated because of it. Lolo kicked him out of the house for a few weeks. The fight for civil rights for both in the gay and immigrant community are parallel. As Vargas’s situation shows, the fight is also very much interconnected.
During his senior year, Vargas could not apply for state or federal aid, without which his grandparents couldn’t afford to pay for college. Fortunately, he earned a full-time scholarship. Years later, Jim Strand, the guy who had sponsored his scholarship, offered to pay for an immigration lawyer. Vargas accepted and this gave him hope. But, it crushed him when the lawyer told him his only way out would be to return to the Philippines on a ten-year-ban before he could apply to return legally.
In appearance, Vargas has a successful career in journalism. In essence, his stamped identity of an “illegal alien” has devastated his life.
“The more I achieved, the more scared and depressed I became. I was proud of my work, but there was always a cloud hanging over it, over me.”
Vargas declares “I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.” And so, he has decided to come out. His story is painful, and paints the reality of what is the life of millions of students and workers in the U.S. Vargas believed, as he was taught to believe, that if he upheld the values of being a citizen, he would be granted citizenship. This is a myth. It takes great courage to face a lifetime-fear. While reading his narrative, one question keeps appearing in the mind’s eye: did he choose this life? The answer is: When given a “choice” between being shot and shooting oneself, the result is always death. He had no choice, but just the instinct to survive.
Vargas no longer wishes to feel fear or to hide his true identity. He wants to show people who he really is and that there are other people out there who are be in the same situation as him. He wants to live in peace and show his country what he has accomplished despite his obstacles. He wants his country to take him as he is.
My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant By: Jose Antonio Vargas Published: June 22, 2011.