What Happens When a High-Profile Undocumented Immigrant Reveals Himself?

Judging by my Twitter feed, the most captivating story of the day is Jose Antonio Vargas’s account, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” Writing in the NYT Magazine, Vargas recounts how his mother sent him to the United States when he was 12 and how, in the subsequent years, he built a career as a successful journalist. But he never became a legal resident:

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.

But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.

Last year I read about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act, a nearly decade-old immigration bill that would provide a path to legal permanent residency for young people who have been educated in this country. At the risk of deportation — the Obama administration has deported almost 800,000 people in the last two years — they are speaking out. Their courage has inspired me.

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.

What should America do with immigrants like Vargas? Deporting him has got to be wrong answer. In almost all regards, he’s behaved like a model citizen, working hard, contributing to society, and playing by most of the rules. America is better for him being here. But, as his account makes clears, he knowingly and repeatedly misled employers and violated employment and documentation laws. Is there some balance by which he can become a legal resident, with hopes one day of becoming a citizen, yet still bear some penalty for breaking the law?

P.S. Vargas first offered his account to his old employer, the Washington Post. As Paul Farhi recounts, the Post gave the story a careful vetting and decided to drop it because Vargas had withheld some information. Vargas then went to the NYT, which rushed the piece into this week’s NYT Magazine. As Farhi notes:

This gave the story a singular distinction: It may be the first published by the New York Times that was developed, fact-checked and substantially edited by editors at The Washington Post.

2 thoughts on “What Happens When a High-Profile Undocumented Immigrant Reveals Himself?”

  1. I think that whether deportation should be the answer depends in part on one’s philosophy towards penalties. If one takes an absolutist view of the law, then penalties should attempt to deter law-breaking in all cases. If one takes the view that it is sometimes efficient to break a law, then penalties should be set such that they only deter law-breaking when that law-breaking is inefficient (the harm caused by the violation is greater than the benefit to the violator). There are cases that most people would clearly say fall in the latter category: speeding penalties should not be so high that a driver is afraid to speed in the case of a medical emergency. I tend to believe illegal immigration should also fall in this category. It’s hard to believe that the harm caused by Vargas’s presence outweighs the benefits he (and the rest of American society) have received from his presence here, even considering the implication of providing incentive for future illegal immigration.

    My high school business law teacher used to say, “One sign of a bad law is that people don’t follow it.”

  2. People only obey good laws? News to me. Folks run stop signs in my neighborhood all the time, good white republican people committing serial crimes, running multiple stop signs.

    I guess they can pretty much tell at 40 mph instantly whether a stop sign is just and proper or a mere nuisance to be disregarded, irregardless of their own personal jeopardy or the danger they present to others.

    So too immigration appears to be a bad law that we can merely shrug off.

    I say we deport him and let his country of citizenship decide if he is truly theirs. He obviously isn’t an American, he works too hard. Lets test him on one of those tough jobs real Americans won’t do. Make him pick tomatoes for a year and then we can figure out if he’s a real American.

    The jury is still out. We must read his calluses to know his true future.

Comments are closed.