dear america

dear america.png

by Jose Antonio Vargas





the everyday lives of ‘dreamers’ young undocumented immigrants who like me arrived in the country as children, are subject to the president’s tweets.. ie: conflating undocumented immigrants w violent ms 13 gang members..  referring to us as animals.. and snakes..


most americans, i discovered, have no idea how the immigration system works, what the citizenship process requires, and how difficult , if not downright impossible it is for undocumented people to ‘get legal’.. all the while, undocumented workers like me pay billions into a govt that detains and deports us

book is not about politics of immigration.. at its core not about immigration at all.. this book is about homelessness, not in a traditional sense, but the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in.. this book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by; about passing as an americanand as a contributing citizen; about families, keeping them together and having to make new ones when you can’t. this book is about constantly hiding from the govt and, in the process, hiding from ourselves. this book is about what it means to not have a home.. t

unauthorized home less ness

after 25 yrs of living illegally in a country that does not consider me one of it sown, this book is the closest thing i have to freedom.. t


note to readers: mine is only one story, one of an estimated 11 million here in the us.. although the details of our stories differ, the contours of our experience are much the same: lying, passing, and hiding..t

part 1 – lying

1 – gamblers


when people think of borders and walls, they usually think of land. i think of water..

siddiqi border law

2 – the wrong country


to lolo, america was something you wear, something you buy, something you eat, and he wanted to spoil his first and only grandson – me.. it was consumption all around..  lolo would become the father figure i never had

3 – crittenden middle school


i stood out because of everything i did not know..


america was like a class subject i’d never taken, and there was too much to learn/study/make sense of .. why does the dog/cat food cost more than the people food..


being accepted at school felt like being accepted in america.. blending in..


separation not only divides families; separation buries emotion, buries it so far down you can’t touch it.. i don’t think i would ever love mama again in the childlike, carefree, innocent way i loved her while writing that letter.. i don’t know where that young boy went..

4 – not black, not white


why are asian and hispanic capitalized while black and white are not.. where do you go if you are multiracial and multiethinic

aren’t we all..?


nonblack and non white people had to figure out which side they fell on and to which degree.. t

memories of idea in vermont and the separate rooms thing causing turmoil for those who didn’t know how to answer that (which i’m thinking.. should be all of us)

non binary ness

in my early formative days in america, while observing my classmates and watching tv and movies, i learned that race was as much about behavior – perceived behavior, expected behavior – as it was about physicality..  too often i stayed silent because i didn’t know what to say.. i wasn’t sure how a filipino was supposed to look or where a filipino was supposed to fit

marsh label law

5 – filipinos


(on making ‘the best nannies and maids’).. perhaps that’s because filipino culture.. is so malleable.. adaptability was essential for surviving 420 yrs of emotional and physical ravages.. ie: spanish colonists who ruled them for more than 370 yrs.. until the americans, desperate to expand their econ and political reach, craved empire.. the us declared itself the rightful ‘owner’ of the islands for some 50 yrs..  karno: 300 yrs in convent, 50 yrs in hollywood..

more than 250 000 filipino soldiers fought under the american flag.. ww2.. w promise of us citizenship and full vet benefits..  playing a crucial role in achieving victory over japanese..

shortly after.. the rescission act of 1946 retroactively took away these soldiers’ status as us vets.. the message was clear: your service didnt’ matter..  it took more than 60 yrs to rectify the injustice


during the philippine-american war, white american soldiers in the philippines referred to filipinos as ‘nigger’ because of their dark complexion..  mid 1900s in use.. confused americans placing them mongolians..  anti miscegenation.. filipinos had to drive out of state in order marry white women..  throughout depression , white americans claimed filipinos ‘brought down the standard of living because they worked for low wages’ .. many hotels, restaurants, and even swimming pools displayed signs ‘positively no filipons allowed’


i grew up in the other mtn view.. in the other silicon valley, where the american dream rests on the outdated and byzantine immigration system that requires families to wait for years, if not decades, to be reunited w their loved ones

6 – mexican josé and filipino jose

1994 – pet wilson: unfair to support illegal immigrant children attending american schools., costing taxpayers 1/5 b

7 – fake


(on finding out his greencard et al was fake at 16) together , the fake green card and the passport cost lolo 4500 dollars, a huge sum for a security guard who made 5 dollars/hr

it took me time to make sense of the gravity of the deception, the layers of lies. i couldn’t stay legally, i couldn’t leave legally either. i was trapped. a legal no boy’s land..

i found out the uncle who accompanied me on the flight to america was  a smuggler who lolo had paid..

they planned i would marry to become legal

8 – coming out


there are many parts that make each of us whole. since i didn’t know who to talk to , or what to do, or how to think about the ‘illegal’ part of me, embracing the gay part kept me alive..


the sentimental high of ellen’s coming out story was followed by the tragic low of mattthew shepard’s murder.. 1998


(on getting kicked out of house and living w peter) we had an arrangement. i needed a place to stay for a couple weeks, and he needed a companion.. some people say he took advantage of me. i would argue that i took advantage of him.

part 2 – passing

1 – playing a role


here in america.. the libraries were my church..  between the 2 libraries my ed was complete..t

library ness


tv guide.. was a bible.. tv is where i picked up idioms and mannerisms.. in order to act, talk and pass as some kind of american.. i studied every show i could watch..  seeing how far away from ‘illegal’ filipino w a thick accent as i could get..


ragtime connected dots i didn’t know existed (ie: white people are immigrants too).. allowing me to better understand american history in ways my textbooks didn’t fully explain..  i learned.. that except for native americans..everyone was an immigrant..

holmgren indigenous law


passing as an american was my way of exerting control over a life i had no control over.. it was not my decision to come here.. acquire fake papers and lie my way into being in america.. but i was here.. i felt i had to control what kind of american i was going to be.. which led to what kind of mask i had to wear

2 – mtn view hs


i didn’t realize it then, but the more stories i reported on, the more people i interviewed, the more i realized that writing was the freest thing i could do, unencumbered by borders and legal docs and largely dependent on my skill sand talent..  reporting, interviewing and writing felt like the safest, surest place in my everyday reality.. my way of writing myself into america.. in the beginning .. writing was only a way of passing as an american. i never expected it to be an id.. above all else, i write to exist.. to make myself visible..


i made a concerted effort to stay as busy as possible.. being at home reminded me of my limitations.. being at school opened up possibilities.. newspaper, choir, speech, debate, plays, musicals.. student govt..


(on everyone paying his way to trips et ).. sometimes i wonder what would have happened to me if i had not attended a relatively wealthy school in a community of privilege

3 – an adopted family

4 – breaking the law


by filling out forms to work.. checking the box that i’m an american citizen

5 – the master narrative


the bluest eye by toni morrison


black writers gave me permission to question america.. t.. challenged me to find my place here and created a space for me to claim.. opened doors to other writers of color..   i read those words from baldwin like they were some sort of dare: ‘you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal w you, not its idea of you’

baldwin.. roy..


i wanted no part of the master narrative about who the ‘illegal’ is..

6 – ambition


the more ambitious as a reporter i became, the more risks i had to take, the more lies i had to tell, the more laws i had to break

7 – white people


didn’t meet kind of white people you’re talking about till i moved to dc

8 – washington post

9 – strangers

10 – bylines

11 – campaign 2008


even when it seemed like everything was going well, really well, i worried about everything

12 – purgatory


the lies, i remember thinking that day, had to stop.. always looking over your shoulder, waiting to get found out, always wondering if you’re not passing enough..  paranoia was like some viral disease that infected my whole body.. stress was oxygen

13 – thirty


2010 – reporting on zuckerberg.. at the time he had yet to be deeply profiled.. the profile would come out before the premiere of he social network

the social network – zuckerberg – facebook

arianna huffington recruited me to join the huffington post in summer of 2009



by summer of 2010.. at peak of my journalism career, depression had completely sunk in …


the 3 most dangerous words for me: i, me, and my.. partly because i’ve so internalized the axiom that i need to ‘earn’ my american citizenship that i’m uncertain if i’ve ‘earned’ the right to express myself in such personal terms.. also partly because i’m afraid of what happens when i confront my own despair, the sense of disorientation and abandonment i’ve been grappling w since arriving in this country as a motherless 12 yr old.. i run from people.. i run from myself.. because i’ve never felt at home..t.. because i’ve never had a real home. i’ve organized my life so i’m constantly on the move and on the go, existing everywhere and nowhere. i cannot sit still.. i live at airports.. fitting since that’s where my life changed.. to go to a country where i’ve built a life that i have not been able to leave..

14 – facing myself

15 – lawyers

16 – second coming out


why did i have to lie? how does someone become ‘illegal’?..t


how do undocumented workers who have no legal papers pay income taxes?.. the govt has no problem takin our money; it just won’t recognize that we have the right to earn it..  regardless of immigration status, all wage earners are required to pay fed taxes..


immigrants are seen as mere labor, our physical bodies judged by perceptions of what we contribute, or what we take.. our existence is as broadly criminalized as it is commodified.. ..even though it si an illegal act to enter the country w/o documents, it is not illegal for a person to be in the country w/o documents.. that is a clear and crucial distinction. i am not a criminal. this is not a crime..


on bill maher – why can’t you just fix this thing.. if maher of all people doesn’t understand how even someone high profile like me can’t just ‘fix this thing’ then it shouldn’t be a surprise that most people regardless of political affiliation have no  idea how the immigration system works..


you can’t separate the documented from the undocumented population because many undocumented people myself included have family members who are us citizens or permanent legal residents. at least 9m people in fact are part of what are called ‘mixed status’ families.. household in which one member or more is here legally and the others are not. we’re all mixed up..

a country that’s been long characterized by its black and white binary now faces a far more complex and unparalleled demographic reality – immigrants from all over 55% of growth.. in next years 88%


42 m immigrants in 187 years.. then 43 m in in 50 yrs..


who gets to exercise rights as us citizen and why..

while i  was filming a documentary at the pine ridge indian reservation in south dakota a student.. approached me..’i know who you are.. you don’t talk about immigration and not talk about us’.. at pine ridge.. 75% of children live below the poverty line.. dropout rate i over 70%,.. unemployment is between 85&90%.. the despair and hopeless ness was staggering to witness..

imagine diff means to tell well being.. could change everything.. w tech as it could be..


after i spoke in north carolina an elderly black woman grabbed me ‘i’m not an immigrant, mr vargas.. our people were brough here against our will’… can you connect the paper (bill of sale into slavery) she got to the papers that you and your people can’t seem to get..?

according to harvard.. hurricane maria  claimed 4645 people.. more than 9/11 and hurricane katrina combined.. a few weeks after tragedy hit a young man from san juan emailed me ‘hey jose.. i know you’re not a us citizen but are you sure you want to be one..? i’m a citizen and it doesn’t guarantee everything man’..

18 – who am i


suddenly i was not a human being. by creating define american w my friends, i claimed an issue and was treated like one..t


w/in 48 hours (time magazine wanted antonio on cover.. he wanted a bunch of undocumenteds on cover).. we had assembled 35 dreamers in a warehouse studio in the meatpacking district for a photo shoot.. most of them didn’t know each other.. everyone gave their permission to appear on a cover of a major magazine.. i couldn’t ‘tell them which one.. .. the photo shoot which lasted for several hours, was among the proudest days of my entire life..


the photographer and his assistants treated everyone w such dignity.. i thought of ellen on the cover of time and what that image meant to me. i could only imagine what this cover image – so many faces s names and stores – could mean for the undocumented people..

election time.. so on day time cover hit newsstands.. obama announced create  of daca.. deferred action for childhood arrivals..


nearly 850 000 young undocumented americans could pursue their dreams.. but .. to be enrolled in daca, you would have to pay the govt nearly 500 so it wouldn’t deport you for tow years .. daca is temporary, and not everyone qualifies..

of 35 on cover.. 6 couldn’t apply for daca.. i was one of them.. 30 was cut-off.. and i was 4 moths too old..

19 – inside fox news

20 – public person, private self

21 – progress


the interrogation of my motives and strategies continued for years, to the point that, as a proactive measure, i started referring to myself as ‘the most privileged undocumented immigrant in america’..


it’s not enough we attack systems, we also battle each other, out in the open. bullying is common place..  i’ve learned that there are all kinds of borders, none higher, steeper, more consequential than the borders between human beings – even among people who are fighting for the same thing but may not even agree on how to define what that thing is..t

since i was mentored and nurtured by both white and black people, my instinct is to bring people together.. i don’t want to leave anyone behind..t

burke freedom law

airing of (doc)  – what is white


i wish i could say that being a global citizen is enough, but i haven’t been able to see the world, and i’m still trying to figure out what citizenship, form any country, means to me..i wish i could say that being a human being is enough, but there are times i don’t feel like a human being..

i feel like a thing. a thing to be explained/understood/tolerated/accepted..t

nationality.. human

mufleh humanity lawwe have seen advances in every aspect of our lives except our humanity – Luma Mufleh

a thing that spends too much time educating people so it doesn’t have to educate itself on what it has become.. i feel like a thing that can’t just be

part 3 – hiding

1 – my govt, myself


obama, who couldn’t have won the white house w/o the latino vote in 2008 and 2012, failed in his promise to tackle the issue in his first year in office..

to my mind, nothing says i am done hiding from my govt more than appearing before congress.. took my whole family


i don’t recall ever being as nervous as i was the day of the hearing.. the source of anxiety came from the terror of losing my composure and breaking down..

‘i come to you as one of our country’s 11 mn undocumented immigrants, many of us americans at heart, but w/o the right papers to show for it’.. i began


what do you want to do w us.. how do you define american?


(only question i got from sessions): would you agree fundamentally that a great nation should have an immigration policy and then create a legal system that carries that policy out and then enforces that policy?

yes sir

wtf..? why?

like most undocumented immigrants, i’d never been arrested.. and that meant i’d never been in contact w ice.. after all the years of lying.. trying to pass as an american.. the only response i could get from the us govt, courtesy of the ice agent who put me on hold was;: ‘no comment’

how do you build a life w  ‘no comment’

dang.  how do you build a life w immigration policies/legalities/enforcements..?

siddiqi border law

2 – home


as i get older, as the sense of isolation and invalidation digs deeper and deeper, i cannot bear to look myself in the face. even though i am no longer hiding from the govt, i am hiding from myself, all alone in a massive loft

3 – distant intimacy

4 – leaving

5 – staying

6 – detained


(while in jail w 25 young boys): if spoke spanish i could have told the boys that none of this was their fault. i could have made sure they understood, even if most americans do not..that people like us come to america because america was in our countries.. t.. how the largest groups of people who migrate to the usa – voluntarily, forcibly, unknowingly, like them – do so because of what the us gov has done to their countries..  ie: trade agreements driving millions out of jobs..


i could have explained the connection between the dirty muddy worn out reeboks and nikes they were wearing  and the inherent american need to expand its economic and political empire..


all i could see as i stared at the boys was young pepeton staring back at me

7 – the machine


the majority of undocumented immigrants cannot adjust their status and ‘get legal’ even if they marry a us citizens or qualify for a green card because of a relative.. . worst of all, undocumented immigrants are banished for at least 3 yrs if they’ve lived in the country w/o proper documentation for 6 months; if they’ve been here illegally for a year or more, the banishment lasts 10 yrs


put simply.. for the govt.. keeping people ‘illegal’ is much easier than allowing them to get ‘legal’.. 

as the years wore on, the enforcement apparatus locked up more and more people, spending billions in the process..


the cost of laws.. protecting border is almost astronomically absurd.. 2014 – us govt spends more money each year on border/immigration enforcement than the combined budgets of the fbi, bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, the drug enforcement admin, the secret service and the us marshals.. more than 100 bn of tax dollars spent on border/immigration since 9 11…


all for what? to protect americans from whom..?

8 – national security threat


the politics of immigration as so poisonous even helpless kids couldn’t be seen as kids

9 – alone


is this really about who has the right papers and what the laws are? or is this about someone to control?..t..  are these agents so blithely unaware that they and their govt have hurt me more than i could ever hurt myself..? (when they asked for everything on him that he could use to hurt himself.. while detained)


it’s dangerous out there, and home should be the place where we feel safe and at peace

home ness

home is not somethingishouldhaveto earn.. humanity is not a box i should have to check.. t

we don’t have a broken immigration system.. what we’re doing – waving a ‘keep out’ flag at the mexican border while holding up a help wanted sign a 100 yards in – is deliberate.. spending billions building fences and walls, locking people up likelivestock, deporting people to keep the peoplewedon’t want out, tearing families apart, breakingspirits.. all of that serves a purpose. people are forced to lie, people spend years if not decades passing in some kind of purgatory..  and step by step, this immigration system is set up to do exactly what it does.. t


dear america, is this what you really want? do you even know what is happening in your name..?

i don’t know what else you want from us.. i don’t know what else you need us to do..

10 – interview


why did you become a border patrol gent? .. the benefits are solid man..


miedo means fear – (the only word he remembered from the 25 boys)

11 – cycle of loss


like my relationship w mama, imostly transactional. measured by the america products that we ship over to the philippines and the us dollars that we provide that mama can’t live w/o we think we can bury what we’ve lost under all the things we can buy.. when th truth is, the loss that my mother can’t express to her mother is what i struggle to express to her now..

the truth is, if mama had known then what she knows now – that calling her on the phone is difficult, becausei can’t really pretend that i know the voice on the other end of the line – that seeing her on skype or facetimefeels like some sort of twisted joke, exposing the reality that the tech that easily connects us has rendered the very borders that divide us even more visible.. i’m not sure if she would have said good bye at the airport..  on one of our rare pone calls she said ‘ look at you now , the person you’ve become.. how can i have any regrets.’.. im sure she meant it as a statement but it sounded like a question.

the truth is, there’s apart of me, i’m uncertain how much , who is still in that airplane, wondering why mama put me there..

12 – truth


i didn’t want to know that while most undocumented immigrants are arrested, detained, and deported, w/o due process, i was able to get out after 8 hrs of being locked up..

i didn’t want to know that friends who had connectionsto the philippine embassy in the us called the consul general and got him to call dhs to point out that i was filipino..


i didn’t want to know that .. people in positions of power respondedand offered help..

called mama on finishing book and talked longer than we’d every spoken.. mama 60 this year.. me 37.. same age mama was when she dropped me off at the airport on that hurried morning. i told her that since that morningi’vealways been hurried .. that working on this book is the first time i’ve ever allowed myself the space and time to feel, and that i’d been feeling lost and alone.. when she asked me where i was, i said i was staying at a hotel. i told her i had no home at the moment: no physicalspaceof myown, no permanent address..

maybe.. mama said, her voice growing fainter for a moment.. maybe it’s time to come home… t

a nother way.. for all of us.. as it could be..


home less ness

nationality.. human

siddiqi border law

as it could be..

2 convers.. as infra

ie: hlb via 2 convers that io dance.. as the day..[aka: not part\ial.. for (blank)’s sake…]..  a nother way

the energy of 7bn alive people

undisturbed ecosystem

in the city.. as the day..

gershenfeld something else law