The Courage Of Undocumented American Jose Antonio Vargas: Breaking Unjust Laws

By now, you've probably already heard of Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who came out as undocumented in the New York Times Magazine. Memeorandum and Mediagazer, sites which aggregate political and media news, are

By now, you've probably already heard of Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who came out as undocumented in the New York Times Magazine. Memeorandum and Mediagazer, sites which aggregate political and media news, are exploding with his story. Matthew Yglesias even dropped his academic pretensions for a bit to shed a tear or two for Vargas. I say that with love.

If you're as moved as Mathew Yglesias has been moved, and there's only one thing you do in reaction to Vargas' story call Barack Obama through Presente.org and ask him to stop deporting people like Vargas.

Media Matters has a good round-up of the nativist conservatives that are committing demographic suicide by going berserk over this story. I'll write more on the nativists, later, but Vargas' story has highlighted, yet again, for me, how far progressives and the mainstream media have to go before they can begin to cover these stories accurately and with a semblance of humanity. Let's start with Heather Horn staff writer at The Atlantic:

Whatever you think of the illegal immigration issue, it's hard to dispute that there's a fundamental injustice occurring if Vargas gets let off the hook, while hundreds of thousands of other illegals get deported. Even those who want to see productive illegal immigrants granted amnesty might admit that making exceptions purely based on prominence isn't right. What if there's someone as intelligent and productive as Vargas--but not as famous--out there right now?

Heather Horn - The Atlantic (22 June 2011)

Wow. I don't even know where to start. While I somehow doubt Horn's concern for the "hundreds of thousands" that are being deported I've already told people who are concerned to call Barack Obama and ask that his administration use discretion to stop deporting people like Vargas. Recognizing that, I'll start simple with Horn's use of the term "illegal". More people have referred to Vargas as an "illegal immigrant" at this point than I care to count. Not only is that phrase dehumanizing, it's legally innaccurate. No human being is illegal. The word illegal should be used to describe acts, not to define people. Horn, however, goes a step further than dehumanization and legal innaccuracy and gets into butchering grammar with her use of the word "illegals." Sorry Ms. Horn, the word "illegal" is not a noun. Maybe you and the nativists who dehumanize people with the term "illegals" should start taking English lessons from undocumented people like Vargas. If you haven't signed the pledge to Drop The I-Word, please do so.

To Horn's central point about fairness, I'll bring in Nick Baumann at Mother Jones:

I'm sympathetic to Matt Yglesias' view that we should empathize with all people who come to the United States in search of a better life, even if, unlike Vargas, they do so knowing that what they're doing is illegal. But I've also worked with foreign-born journalists who've paid thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and waded through miles of red tape and seemingly senseless regulations—including, sometimes, returning to their home countries for a period—in order to work in this country.* (This applies outside of journalism, too, of course.) I wonder how they're feeling about Jose Antonio Vargas this morning.

Nick Baumann - Mother Jones (22 June 2011)

It's difficult for me not to descend into sarcasm after reading this. Does Baumann really think that foreign journalists envy Vargas' position, right now, or for the last decade and a half, for that matter? Would Baumann care to get any of those foreign journalists on record so we know who those heartless bastards are? I thought the supposedly liberal Mother Jones magazine really took a step forward when reporter Tim Murphy stopped using the word "illegal," but Baumann just put the magazine another huge step backward in the anti-migrant direction with this post. Finally, I'll refer to Bryan Preston over at Pajamas Media whom I believe most succinctly provides the nativist view:

He took at least two jobs that otherwise would have gone to others who are here legally.

He used false documents — a fake green card, a fake Social Security card, and a fake passport to get the fake Social Security number.

Despite having lived in America for over 14 years, he has never bothered himself to get right with the legal system.

[...]

He got a scholarship that presumably would have gone to someone else.

He established a network of friends who helped him continue to skirt immigration law, as an adult.

He even managed to get around the Secret Service and visited the White House as a journalist. If he can do that, who else can do that?

Bryan Preston - Pajamas Media (22 June 2011)

There's two myths, here, which nativists frequently rely on to trick people into anti-migrant sentiment. The first myth is the idea that a job or a scholarship given to one person is a job or a scholarship taken away from someone else. This is fallacious zero-sum logic. Conservatives who pride themselves in economic literacy and knowledge of the free market should know this to be false. A job given to one person is not a job taken away from another because that person in turn supports the jobs of others once he's employed. What's most ridiculous is how clear this myth is in this case. If Vargas hadn't gotten that scholarship, or received his job, we could have all been deprived of his Pultizer Prize winning reporting of the Virginia Tech Massacre, which was of value to more people than I would like to try and count.

The second myth is just a basic misunderstanding of the U.S. immigration system, the idea that it's possible for undocumented people "get right with the legal system." As Vargas makes very clear in his New York Times piece, he would have had to leave and wait for 10 years before he could even begin the process of waiting for decades to get back into the U.S. which for all intents and purposes means he would never be able to come back. The 10 year bar is just one of many ridiculous elements of a complex, conflicting, and fundamentally broken immigration system. Reason Magazine has a good graphic conveying the complexity of the system. Pay attention to the fact that if you are a low-skilled worker with no family in the U.S., there is no real legal route for you to migrate here. For the vast majority of unauthorized migrants, there is no line, to get in the back off.

Finally, I'll get to what I believe is most courageous about Jose Antonio Vargas, which is his admission of the laws that he's broken as an unauthorized migrant. I'm one of the U.S. citizens who is part of the modern day underground railroad that Vargas describes through his website, Define American. I've helped stop at least half a dozen deportations, and supported many more undocumented youth in their decision to come out just as Vargas has. Vargas is the first undocumented person I know, though, that has so publicly admitted to some of the laws he had to break to get ahead. David Leopold, President of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association (AILA) describes some of the risks:

"I think he has taken a huge personal risk by coming forward," says [David] Leopold. "For example, he admits that he checked 'U.S. citizen' on his I-9 forms. This is a serious civil violation for which there is no waiver under the immigration law as written. If it is construed as a false claim to US citizenship, it could lead to criminal sanctions. The same would hold true for knowingly using a false social security card, drivers license etc. There could be a statute of limitations defense depending on when these occurred. But, nevertheless, it could lead to prosecution and or deportation proceedings."

John Hudson - The Atlantic (22 June 2011)

It's important to put the laws Vargas has broken into perspective, specifically: (1) Using a fraudulent social security number, and (2) fraudulently applying for a drivers' license. Nativists get outraged when unauthorized migrants don't pay federal income tax (they of course pay property and sales taxes like everyone else), but when they get a social security number to pay taxes into a system that they'll never get back, then nativists get outraged at them for committing fraud. Isn't it better for Vargas to pay those taxes then for him not to? I would also much rather have Vargas driving having trained to get a license than driving without one. Still, these are laws that Vargas knowingly broke, and he clearly feels guilty about having done so and having misled others in the process.

However, if the immigration system is unjust, and I think most everyone who has studied the system or dealt with it agrees that it is unjust, then don't we have a duty to resist that injustice as Vargas has done? Would it have been nobler for Vargas to hang his head low, stay stuck in one place without a drivers' licence, give up on an education, and not pursue his passion in journalism? Most importantly, what would you do in Vargas' situation? There are unjust laws throughout history that needed to be resisted against.  Where would you have stood then and where do you stand now?

I've already made my choice. The stories of people like Vargas long ago convinced me that I needed to resist against this broken system with everything I had in me. I hope all of you will stand with me, and do the same. Again, if you haven't called Barack Obama to ask him to stop the deportations of people like Vargas, please do so.

Kyle de Beausset is a pro-migrant blogger at Citizen Orange.

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