He worked for The Washington Post and, even before he turned 30, won a Pulitzer, America’s most coveted journalism prize. So, he was already famous. But this past week he has become even more famous after he wrote a 4,661-word magazine piece in The New York Times, revealing his identity as an ‘undocumented immigrant’ and explaining the reason why he decided to come out of his shadow, risking almost certain deportation.
The story was so riveting and compelling that it was all over the Internet, print and broadcast media. So much so that Nightline, a signature news programme of ABC News, devoted a whole segment on the young journalist the other night with an exclusive interview of him.
No wonder, the story has revived the most divisive issue of ‘illegal immigration’ in the United States. But more importantly, it has implications far beyond the American shores and that’s why I thought it’s a significant story to write about because the essence of the story — Rule of Law — offers a quintessential lesson to countries like Bangladesh.
But before I get to that let me give you a quick rundown of the young man who has caused such a stir.
Jose Antonio Vargas came to the United States from the Philippines when he was only 12. Actually, he was smuggled through a Coyote, as the human trafficker is known in America.
One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab, Vargas wrote. She handed me a jacket. “Baka malamig doon” were among the few words she said in native Taglog. (“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.
Vargas’ mother wanted to give him a better life, so she sent him thousands of miles away to live with her parents in America — his grandfather and grandmother. After he arrived in Mountain View, in the San Francisco Bay Area, he entered sixth grade and quickly grew to love his new home, family and culture. He discovered a passion for language, though initially he found 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.”)
Soon enough he demonstrated a flair for writing and, not surprisingly, caught the attention of the local school principal, Pat Hyland. Before long he also earned the love and affection of Rich Fischer, the school district superintendent. The duo not only became his mentors but also wholeheartedly supported him in his quest for legal status and American dream.
Things were going smoothly for Vargas until one day in 1997 when he went to the local Department of Motor Vehicle office (DMV) to obtain a driver’s license after he turned 16, which is the legal age for driving in California. After close inspection of the Green Card he handed in as a proof of permanent residence, the DMV clerk gave a stern look and said it was fake. “Don’t ever come back again”, she warned. Driving license is the most import form of ID in America as it enables you to travel freely by air within the country, open a bank account, check into a hotel and so on.
Shocked and flabbergasted, Vargas rushed back home and confronted his grandparents. They confessed the Green Card was indeed fake and that he was staying in the United States illegally. (They also told him that his mother could not come as an immigrant because, under the American law, a married son or daughter cannot legally emigrate as a dependent. The idea was that once his mother came as a legal immigrant she could then apply for Vargas’s Green card.)
All hell broke loose and his chance of realising the American dream looked all but shattered. Undaunted, he began to look for ways to obtain a driver’s licenses. A few years later, he found one in the state of Oregon, where the requirements were a bit flexible.
Meantime, his writings began to appear in the school newspaper and elsewhere in the Mountain View area, boosting his confidence as a writer. But the immigration problem continued to haunt him. After his high school graduation, he found it hard to enrol in a college because without proper papers he could not get student loan or a scholarship, without which he could not pursue higher education. The problem was overcome, again, with the help of his two mentors, who arranged a private scholarship for him.
It was at that time Rich Fisher, the school super, took him to a San Francisco lawyer to see if his legal problems could be resolved. After learning everything, the lawyer said she was unable to help. And Vargas must return to the Philippines, accept a 10-year ban and then apply to come to America legally. The news crushed him but Fisher advised him to move on without the proper papers. He did.
While in college, Vargas began applying for journalism internships. To his utter surprise, he got one from The Washington Post.
Apparently impressed by his writing skill, the Post offered him a full time job two years later. Quickly, he made his mark and soon after he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer for its reporting on Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 in which 33 students including the gunman were massacred. In 2009, he quit the Post, primarily because he felt uncomfortable that the paper would come to learn about his immigration status. He later went to work for the Huffington Post in New York. There, he got another important break when the prestigious New Yorker magazine commissioned him to write a profile of Mark Zuckerburg, the Facebook founder.
As he excelled and his reputation as a journalist soared, the fear of being caught as an illegal immigrant loomed even larger. For nearly two decades, he kept the secret of his illegal status to himself and his few mentors including Peter Perl, an editor at the Post.
But the deceit never got easier. “The more I did it, the more I felt like an impostor, the more guilt I carried — and the more I worried that I would get caught. But I kept doing it. I needed to live and survive on my own, and I decided this was the way.”
So what prompted him to come out of his shadow now? “I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life any more”, he said, adding, “I’ll be able to see my mother after long 18 years”.
There is perhaps another reason that made him reveal his real identity. By telling his story he hopes to inject fresh momentum into the immigration debate.
Last year Vargas 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 inspired him.
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”.
To be sure, many Americans do feel those young kids should be granted legal status. And they include some of the powerful backers of Vargas, but they are unable to obtain a Green Card for him.
I’m sure President Obama read the story and am also sure he’s sympathetic. But being the most powerful man in the world, he can’t do anything either.
And this is the moral of the story. America is a country governed by law and every one, no matter how powerful or famous he or she is, must abide by the law.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this story offers a critical lesson for Bangladesh — that nobody is above law and sooner our leaders realise this, the better for the country.
Arshad Mahmud is a Washington Correspondent for bdnews24.com.