There are at least 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
There are at least 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Undocumented immigrants make the U.S. a better place

Is it right to demand that "illegal" immigrants "earn" their legal status? 


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I’ve come to know Jose Antonio Vargas as a good man and a fine writer who provides -- in various media -- an essential voice in the immigration debate.

That beats the caricature of Vargas drawn by right-wing nativists as “the most famous illegal in America.” These are the kind of folks who lose sleep over the thought of taco trucks popping up on every street corner.

Or since Vargas is Filipino-American, maybe what the fear-mongers are really worried about is the trucks could be carrying lechon (roasted pig) or pancit palabok (meat & noodle dish).

Either way, unlike those Americans who get fired up about a subject they don’t understand, this 37-year-old journalist, filmmaker and storyteller knows what he’s talking about.

All of which makes me feel bad for having said, a few years ago, that Vargas should be deported.

Nothing personal. That law-and-order impulse is hard for me to overlook, as the son of a retired cop.

I was also pushing back against elitism. If you’re in the country illegally and apprehended, and if you’re a gardener, nanny, housekeeper or farmworker, you’ll likely be deported.

I’ve checked. There is no exemption for Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters who have worked at The Washington Post, produced documentaries and been on the cover of Time magazine.

Vargas isn’t looking for special treatment. A few years ago, he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement and demanded to know its intentions toward him. His brazenness melted ICE, and the agency basically responded: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

He has a blunt message for America, where he has lived since he was 12, and for Americans like him. I tracked him down and asked him to explain it.

“America, look at yourself,” he said. “Americans, look past yourselves. What you can’t face about yourself is what you can’t see about people like me.”

Now Vargas has written a new memoir about his experience as “an undocumented citizen” in a country that doesn’t know what it wants to do with people like him. The book -- “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” -- explains that living in the United States without documents is all about lying to get by, passing as a citizen, and hiding from authorities.

I’d add a fourth item. Most of the undocumented people I know have a nervous tick: They won’t admit they did anything wrong. In the case of the Dreamers -- undocumented young people brought here as children by their parents -- they won’t admit that their parents did anything wrong.

So you have 11 million people -- a figure that a recent study by Yale professors estimates could actually be twice as large -- who are here, out of status, and no one did anything wrong?

Most Americans won’t accept that. And so they’re not eager to cut a deal that would allow the undocumented to legally stay in the United States. Which gets us nowhere.

Vargas supports immigration reform, but he thinks it’ll be pointless if Americans don’t confront the anti-immigrant virus in our bloodstream.

That’s why he co-founded “Define American,” an organization that wants to explore what it means to be a citizen of this country.

I was wrong about Vargas. I was so busy demanding that illegal immigrants (my friend hates that term, but he’s not writing this column) “earn” their legal status that I didn’t appreciate what a steep price many of them have already paid in terms of pain, suffering, homesickness, alienation and the heartbreak of family separation.

Vargas hasn’t seen his own mother in 25 years. He could go back to the Philippines and visit her, but he wouldn’t be able to come back. The ledger is clear; he’s paid enough.

I asked my friend what he thinks America wants from him, and what he wants from America.

“America doesn’t know what it wants from me,” Vargas said. “What I want from America is for America to see me, to see us, fully and holistically.”

I see him. I see them all. And I have no doubt that this country is better off with the undocumented in it.

They infuse the country with optimism, fresh ideas and a fierce work ethic.

In fact, I propose a trade. For every one of these folks that we want to keep, let’s gather up 100 entitled, angry and lazy U.S.-born Americans who aren’t carrying their weight -- and deport these underachievers.

But what country would take them?


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