My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant


By JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS – One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab. She handed me a jacket. “Baka malamig doon” were among the few words she said. (“It might be cold there.”) When I arrived at the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport with her, my aunt and a family friend, I was introduced to a man I’d never seen. They told me he was my uncle. He held my hand as I boarded an airplane for the first time. It was 1993, and I was 12.

My mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me thousands of miles away to live with her parents in America — my grandfather (Lolo in Tagalog) and grandmother (Lola). After I arrived in Mountain View, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay Area, I entered sixth grade and quickly grew to love my new home, family and culture. I discovered a passion for language, though it was hard to learn the difference between formal English and American slang. One of my early memories is of a freckled kid in middle school asking me, “What’s up?” I replied, “The sky,” and he and a couple of other kids laughed. I won the eighth-grade spelling bee by memorizing words I couldn’t properly pronounce. (The winning word was “indefatigable.”)

One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. “This is fake,” she whispered. “Don’t come back here again.”

Confused and scared, I pedaled home and confronted Lolo. I remember him sitting in the garage, cutting coupons. I dropped my bike and ran over to him, showing him the green card. “Peke ba ito?” I asked in Tagalog. (“Is this fake?”) My grandparents were naturalized American citizens — he worked as a security guard, she as a food server — and they had begun supporting my mother and me financially when I was 3, after my father’s wandering eye and inability to properly provide for us led to my parents’ separation. Lolo was a proud man, and I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me. “Don’t show it to other people,” he warned.

I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. 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.

My first challenge was the language. Though I learned English in the Philippines, I wanted to lose my accent. During high school, I spent hours at a time watching television (especially “Frasier,” “Home Improvement” and reruns of “The Golden Girls”) and movies (from “Goodfellas” to “Anne of Green Gables”), pausing the VHS to try to copy how various characters enunciated their words. At the local library, I read magazines, books and newspapers — anything to learn how to write better. Kathy Dewar, my high-school English teacher, introduced me to journalism. From the moment I wrote my first article for the student paper, I convinced myself that having my name in print — writing in English, interviewing Americans — validated my presence here.

The debates over “illegal aliens” intensified my anxieties. In 1994, only a year after my flight from the Philippines, Gov. Pete Wilson was re-elected in part because of his support for Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from attending public school and accessing other services. (A federal court later found the law unconstitutional.) After my encounter at the D.M.V. in 1997, I grew more aware of anti-immigrant sentiments and stereotypes: they don’t want to assimilate, they are a drain on society. They’re not talking about me, I would tell myself. I have something to contribute.

CONTINUE READING

Jose Antonio Vargas (Jose@DefineAmerican.com) is a former reporter for The Washington Post and shared a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. He founded Define American, which seeks to change the conversation on immigration reform. Editor: Chris Suellentrop (C.Suellentrop-MagGroup@nytimes.com)

Find more like this: Immigration

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Kennedy to Sotto: ‘This is a clear case of plagiarism’
  • Philippines, Canada boost defense ties
  • Lift ban on 6 noodle products, Korean Embassy asks PHL govt
  • Pinoys pick Obama in PHL mock elections
  • ‘Operation Smile’ to treat Pinoy kids with cleft lip, palate
  • Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

    Entertainment

  • ‘Even Marcos could not ban firecrackers’
  • 'Ber’ months on, countdown starts
  • With The Opening Maharlika, A Filipino Food Resurgence
  • Samantha Sotto’s journey before Ever After
  • The great English language shift
  • MORE...

    Features

  • ‘CJ has ill-gotten wealth’
  • Singson gets 18 months, to quit House; family in tears
  • Madrigal: There’s proof Nograles brod got P14M in ‘swine scam’
  • MORE...

    Tourism

  • Aquino / Cojuangco
  • 16 dead as Typhoon Pedring strikes Philippines
  • The Learning
  • ‘This is the Philippines’
  • Blasphemy
  • MORE...

    Sports

  • Pinoys pick Obama in PHL mock elections
  • Ram’s mom to Bong Revilla: Keep politics out of murder case
  • Priest turns Pacquiao homecoming into anti-RH bill rally
  • Humiliation by Trillanes triggered suicide, says ex-PMA head
  • Despondent
  • MORE...

    OFW News

  • 150,000 Pinoy nurses in Saudi may lose jobs
  • UP Manila grad leads 37,513 passers of July 2011 nursing exam
  • US bill changes visa requirements for foreign nurses
  • Nurses join 5-day strike in protest over healthcare fees
  • RP nurses seeking US jobs number 15,000 in first 9 months of ’08
  • MORE...

    Environment

  • Departures
  • ‘OFW-friendly’ countries
  • 150,000 Pinoy nurses in Saudi may lose jobs
  • Filipina fights HK rule denying permanent residence to domestics
  • Migrants in United Arab Emirates Get Stuck in Web of Debt
  • MORE...

    Pinoy Places
    and Faces