Jose Antonio Vargas was already a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist when he revealed he lacked legal status in a 2011 essay in New York Times Magazine. The revelation that he has grown up using forged documents — after his parents sent him from the Philippines to the U.S. at age 12 — marked his shift toward a life of immigration activism. Vargas recently published a debut memoir, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.” Ahead of his talk at the Fillmore 6 p.m. March 6 for Taste of the New South, Vargas talked to The Charlotte Observer about the politics and rhetoric of immigration. Details on tickets: https://38686.blackbaudhosting.com/38686/Taste.
Q: First things first: What are you going to talk about in Charlotte?
Whenever we talk about immigration in this country, we think about everything that’s happening in Washington, D.C., and everything that’s happening with President Trump. It seems really removed from what’s happening on the ground, but this an issue that deeply impacts the South. This is a perfect place and a perfect time to hone in on how local this issue is. (In the book,) I really made an effort to focus on the psychology behind all of this, which gets lost. That’s what I want to talk about: the psychological toll and the mental health crisis this is causing.
Even the name, the Levine Museum of the New South — what is the New South? Who makes up the New South? Being someone who looks Asian and has a Latino name, where do Asians and Latinos fit into this white and black binary that has long defined the South? Never mind documented or undocumented.
Q: Your book is split up into three sections: passing, lying, and hiding. How do you distinguish between those?
To me, those are states of being. Those are things that undocumented immigrants like me have to do just so we can survive in this country. But they’re not just specific to undocumented people. You could tell the arc of American history through people who feel like they’ve had to pass as American, in terms of the way they speak, the way they look. Passing, to me, is this journey of finding how America relates to you … For most people, this issue is not personal. With the book, I wanted to familiarize something that is so policy-driven and politically-driven. I would argue that most Americans don’t really know what this issue means.
Q: Why not?
We live in an incredibly fragmented society that has become ever more fragmented because of the different media that we consume. President Trump speaks to a parallel universe in which undocumented immigrants are illegal aliens, are criminals who are attacking Americans.
The American public has a hard time facing this issue because the American public has a hard time facing its history. If you were to ask a lot of white Americans about their immigrant backgrounds… they talk about coming over “the right way.” Like, was there a visa process I didn’t know about in 1850? ... When it comes to immigration, we face our own walls, and our own walls are made out of delusions and myths.
Q: You refer to yourself in the title of the book as an “undocumented citizen.” Can you unpack what that means?
We have to remember that a big part of this conversation is documents. A human being’s existence should be measured more than the pieces of paper they can or can’t attain, but for me, this book was important to complicate it even more.
Equally at stake is this question of what constitutes citizenship. So you’re born here, you have a U.S. birth certificate. Is that it? Is it the accident of birth, and now you’re asking millions of other people who did not have the luck of being born in this country — you’re asking them earn something that you didn’t have to think about?
Q: You originally wanted to write a book about the global migration crisis. How did it turn into a memoir?
I didn’t want to talk about what this feels like because I’m still feeling my way through that. That’s harder to do. I can get all academic, but talking about my own sense of disorientation or how I have to look inside before I can look outside is hard, especially now that I’m a grown-ass man. I’m not a young Dreamer.
A lot of people when they reach out to me because they’re depressed… I tell them, pick up a history book... I find a lot of comfort knowing that I live in a country that is an ongoing sense — that we are being forced by the idea of America to live up to what we think the idea of America is.
Q: How is the current political climate changing how we talk about immigration?
It puts this issue at the forefront. Before Trump, immigration was always a bipartisan mess. Both Republicans and Democrats are responsible for why we are where we are. Donald Trump forced us to look at it. The separation of families, of children — that’s been a part of history since time immemorial. We are connecting the dots between mass incarceration and mass detention. It’s forcing us to deal with the fact of the issue.
Journalists realize the moral quandary and the moral weight of the issue after Trump got elected. The tragedy, of course, is that this has been happening since the Clinton presidency. So where was everybody then? President Obama has deported a record number of immigrants. Where was the tragedy then?
When this issue is discussed, it has been framed from the political point of view, but there’s so little about process. It never fails to amaze me how many people say, ‘Surely, there’s a way to get legal status,’ and they’re looking at me. But if I can’t get this fixed as the most privileged undocumented immigrant, what does that say?