From his film, Documented: Jose Antonio Vargas (with the sign) attends a Romney campaign rally in Iowa. Photo: 2014 Documented
Here is something you probably don't know about illegal immigrants in the United States. There aren't any. Zero. The term, on its face, is willfully misleading.
It is not a crime to emigrate to the United States without a visa. The punishment for overstaying a visa, or for having been discovered in the United States without a visa, is not a criminal penalty. It is a civil remedy; an administrative sanction. That's because the executive branch has the primary right to decide who gets to stay here and who doesn't. So the phrase "undocumented immigrant" is not a politically correct, less-than-harsh way of referring to what are commonly called "illegal immigrants." It's much more accurate.
Things like this really irritate Jose Antonio Vargas.
In 2011, Vargas became a national spokesperson for the rights of the undocumented when he penned a New York Times magazine article explaining his decision to come out as an undocumented immigrant. Vargas was born in the Philippines. When he was young, his grandparents managed to bring him to the United States. Then they contrived to keep him here past the expiration date of his visa. He grew up, unaware that he was not a permanent resident until, at the age of 16, he was told that the papers he presented to document his status at the California Department of Motor Vehicles were fake.
I first met Vargas in 2005, when he was a reporter for The Washington Post. He would later help the paper win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. I remember our first meeting because he asked me a lot of questions. A lot of questions. I later guessed that he asked me a lot of questions so I wouldn't ask him too much about his own past. He did not want to have to lie to another person.
On Friday, Vargas' extraordinary film, Documented, opens in New York City. CNN will air the documentary later this summer. I recommend it highly. It is sad and funny, poignant without being preachy, and potentially game-changing. But, as his friend, you'd expect me to praise his film, so I might not be an unmotivated critic.
After a screening in Los Angeles a month ago, I talked to Vargas about his activism. The transformation from writer to activist was not easy. Vargas doesn't follow talking points. He likes discursions and tangents. He is not unsympathetic to critics of immigration reform. Unlike a lot of activists I know, he tries to find common ground with his opponents. He also calls out his own side. He is not a huge fan of President Obama's, and doesn't really mind if the White House gets wind of this. (Until very recently, Obama was essentially deporting almost every undocumented immigrant with a misdemeanor on the books.)
Vargas is gay, too. He came out when he was a junior in high school.
There is a correspondence between the gay rights movement and the movement he is now a leader of. There are many obvious differences, of course, but the similarities are pretty deep, and Vargas is a unique position to see them. He wants gay rights advocates to open their eyes a bit wider. His argument is pretty compelling.
"When I came out as an undocumented person and did an initial round of publicity, I had some people reach out to me and say that I'm not being gay enough. But here I am, on Rachel Maddow and Colbert talking being undocumented but I didn't bring up being gay. And they would say to me, you know, you need to be a little gayer. You talk about being undocumented and not enough about being gay. And I thought I was being appropriately gay enough." (Colbert, true to form, did call Vargas a "border gay." His sexual orientation did not come up during contentious interviews with Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Reilly.)
Vargas notices "so many undocumented young leaders are also openly gay." Why? "Cause I think that we are coming out? Is it any accident that undocumented people use the term coming out? Right? We've grown up in this era of coming out. Coming out as a way of letting people in. And I mean by that, coming out as a way of letting people know about rights, about access. About citizenship."
He hopes that the undocumented immigrants rights movement will emulate the successes of the incredibly rapidly germinating gay rights movement, including its targeted cultural and media advocacy ("culture trumps politics," he says), wily political engagement, personalizing individual experiences and stories, influencing corporate values and picking and choosing their battles carefully.
Vargas thinks that gay rights leaders have a moral responsibility to help. There's a ways to go before full equality is realized, of course, but arguing over who gets credit for what is the hallmark of a mature political movement.
"There needs to be more leadership in words and actions from the LGBT community on this issue. I don't see it to the extent that we should given how much these two issues intersect. Among the two defining civil rights movements of our time are LGBT rights and immigrant rights. And what are they both about? They're both about the fact that America is changing, demographically and culturally. The country will only get gayer, the country will only get more Latino and more Asian. Those are inevitabilities."
"There hasn't been an aggressive, bold sense of community between these two groups," he says. "One one my jobs is to connect the dots."
Last month President Obama went to the LBJ Library in Texas to celebrate the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Next year is the 50th anniversary of something that shaped our society almost as much: the 1965 Immigration and Nationalities Act, which forever changed the demographic seams of America. In 1965, the racist quote system that governed immigration since 1920 was replaced by a series of rule-based preferences for family cohesion and economic contributions. It was much fairer, in more tightly linking citizenship to what individuals were able to do for America. The 1965 Immigration and Nationalities Act is why a majority of children being born today in America are not white.
Vargas, gay, from the Philippines, undocumented, is a leading light of the movement today, but by next year, in part because of the film, he will be a celebrity, albeit one with a huge task on his shoulders.
"This is a time to really go to uncomfortable places and get people uncomfortable. Look, I have been uncomfortable my whole life. I can stand a little discomfort."
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