What Happens After You Become the ‘Most Famous Undocumented Immigrant in America’

In his memoir, the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas attempts to tell the story of his own life while recognizing that he’s often viewed as a voice for millions.

Andrey_Kuzmin / Shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

“I swallowed American culture before I learned how to chew it,” recounts Jose Antonio Vargas in his recently released memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Equipped with two different public-library cards, Vargas gorged on newspapers, magazines, books, music, TV shows, and films that he hoped would teach him—then a 16 year old who discovered that he’d been smuggled from the Philippines into the United States—how to “pass as an American.”

Though Vargas was living in the Bay Area with fake residency documents, his mission was to acquire a citizen’s cultural fluency. Movies in particular made visible the immensity and diversity of America; they also taught him a key lesson on how the experiences and renderings of a single place can differ, depending on who’s telling the story. After watching four distinct films set in New York City, Vargas marvels, “How can Martin Scorsese’s New York City be the same as Woody Allen’s New York City, which is not the same thing as Spike Lee’s New York City and Mike Nichols’s New York City?”

Vargas’s heightened attention to the powers of perspective heavily informs his book, which spans the past 25 years of the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist’s life. Dear America serves as the most comprehensive follow-up to three works in particular: Vargas’s 2011 New York Times Magazine essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant”; his 2012 Time cover story, “Not Legal Not Leaving”; and his 2013 film, Documented. More notably, the book is Vargas’s first long-form piece of writing that tries, through the use of vignettes, to distinguish his private self from his public persona. Both a journalist and an activist who founded the nonprofit Define American, Vargas notes that he’s often regarded as the “most famous undocumented immigrant in America.” In other words, he’s aware that his life story will never be entirely read as just his own; still, that doesn’t stop him from attempting to tell that story through memoir—a genre that requires an extended introspection of the self.

In a direct address to his readers early in Dear America, Vargas situates his tale as being “only … one of an estimated 11 million here in the United States.” This decision to pull away from a single immigration narrative is consistent with how Vargas has approached the subject in the past as a reporter. Though the memoir focuses on his story, it is divided into three sections named for three experiences that he argues all undocumented people share: “Lying,” “Passing,” and “Hiding.” The book seems to follow in the footsteps of Vargas’s literary idol James Baldwin, who, upon returning to the U.S. from France in the midst of the civil-rights movement, recognized the role he could play.

“I didn’t think of myself as a public speaker, or as a spokesman, but I knew I could get a story past the editor’s desk,” Baldwin said in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review. “And once you realize that you can do something, it would be difficult to live with yourself if you didn’t do it.” Whether Vargas feels the depth of that responsibility to a larger community (as Baldwin describes) is perhaps unknowable. But the choice—to “do something”—may not always be a single person’s to make, as a fellow undocumented friend of Vargas’s points out in Dear America: “In our movement, you come out for yourself, and you come out for other people.” This was especially true for Vargas in 2011 and for the 35 other undocumented people who joined him on the historic June 2012 cover of Time.

As others have observed, Dear America recapitulates experiences the author has written about elsewhere, beginning with the morning a 12-year-old Vargas is awoken by his mother. He’s hurriedly sent in a cab to the airport and flies to the U.S., where he’s taken in by family members who’ve settled in Northern California. The early chapters describe Vargas’s delight at eating Neapolitan ice cream for the first time, his acculturation of American slang, and how he came to understand the U.S. as a place of racial plurality and hyphenated identities. He describes again how, while applying for a driver’s permit at the age of 16, he learns that his green card is fake and that the lies that brought him into the country were now his burden to bear. In a section about what prompted his decision to come out as gay to his high-school classmates and his grandparents, Vargas explains how carrying one secret was difficult enough.

The memoir form, however, allows for pockets of fresh details, including a chapter on what it means to be Filipino—a group, Vargas writes, that seems to “fit everywhere and nowhere at all,” particularly in national discussions about immigration, which overwhelmingly focus on the Latinx community. In the chapter “Mexican José and Filipino Jose,” Vargas writes about California’s Proposition 187 from 1994 and how even then, “whenever ‘illegals’ were brought up in the news … the focus was on Latinos and Hispanics, specifically Mexicans.” And later, a classmate who had asked Vargas about his green card points out: “I guess you don’t have to worry about your green card … Your name is Jose, but you look Asian.”

Vargas’s candid prose is inviting to readers who are new to his story, as well as to those who might be unfamiliar with the complexities of U.S. immigration policy. The author covers the precedents and ramifications of several measures and laws, including the Rescission Act of 1946, Operation Gatekeeper, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, and the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The 1996 laws, Vargas notes, “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.’” From countless angles, the memoir illustrates why it’s nearly impossible for Vargas—and incalculable others—to “get in line” and become an American citizen. (As he emphatically points out multiple times, there is no such “line.”)

Vargas’s attempt to answer all relevant questions—covering every possible base, taking into account the varied experiences and precarious statuses of the millions living without documents in the U.S.—is where the book gets bogged down. The memoir, as it veers into reportage, loses Vargas in the multitudes. His justified exhaustion at having to continually explain his and others’ predicaments to people across the political spectrum is palpable. Late in Dear America, for example, he expresses his frustration with some of his most acerbic critics: other activists who’ve outright told him that he’s too successful to be the media’s face of the immigrant-rights movement. “I exchanged a life of passing as an American and a U.S. citizen so I could work for a life of constantly claiming my privilege so I could exist in the progressive activist world,” Vargas writes in a sobering passage.

For many readers like myself who grew up undocumented and who have been following Vargas’s trajectory since his 2011 essay, seeing the exact ways in which his story diverges from our own is the crux of the memoir. His America, as others have pointed out, is one of unusual advantages: He was lucky enough to attend “a relatively wealthy school in a community of privilege,” a community where people with connections, money, and access to lawyers protected and allowed him to build a life for himself.

Committed to freeing himself from the many lies he had to tell to protect his identity, Vargas is forthright and explicit in Dear America about the doors that were opened for him. In the chapter “White People,” for example, he explains how certain friends helped him obtain a driver’s license. That piece of identification allowed him to accept a summer internship, then a two-year internship, and then a job at The Washington Post—the newspaper where he earned his Pulitzer as part of a team that covered the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. His is an undocumented America of white-collar work and white-collar spaces. In a startling passage about being interviewed by Megyn Kelly on TV, Vargas observes how “as a group of people, Kelly calls us ‘illegals,’” but “in person, to my face, she always refers to me as undocumented.”

“Memoirists shouldn’t exaggerate the most gruesome aspects of their lives,” explains Mary Karr in an interview with The Paris Review. “You have to normalize the incredible.” Dear America seeks to lay bare Vargas’s unadulterated truth, which is that even he—with all of his accomplishments, accolades, and associations—is caught up in the labyrinthine U.S. immigration laws without recourse. He was, after all, three months too old to qualify for the limited protections afforded by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a 2012 policy whose age restriction essentially created a generational divide between undocumented people.

Vargas’s lack of temporary legal protection, in fact, is what results in his being detained after a vigil welcoming Central American refugees at the McAllen, Texas, border in the summer of 2014. “I do not know where I will be when you read this book,” Vargas writes in Dear America’s prologue. “I don’t know when the government will file my [Notice to Appear] and deport me from the country I consider my home.” In this moment, the memoir inadvertently asks readers to consider again the estimated 11 million undocumented people in America and wonder how many, like Vargas, might be overlooked in conversations around the revoking of DACA and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, or bills like the DREAM Act, whose various iterations have also included age restrictions.

Dear America is significant for its expression of individual difference within the overlapping experiences of undocumented people. As the memoir’s research shows, Vargas’s perspective is but one contribution to an evolving narrative and long-standing history of immigration. It is the individual details of his story, though, that further reveal the breadth of undocumented America. “I’m a relative newcomer,” Vargas confesses in a moment of intimacy that reminds readers of Dear America’s epistolary foregrounding. In moments like this one, the solitary voice of Vargas arrives as a letter in the reader’s hands, from a sender, we remember, with no return address to call home.

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