Features & Columns

Hiding in Plain Sight

The country's most famous undocumented immigrant continues to fight
for his rights and others—but he can't do it alone

Hiding in Plain Sight | Excerpt: Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen

America's most famous undocumented immigrant reflects on hiding in plain sight, from Mountain View to DC Photo by Elena Seibert

At the age of 16, Jose Antonio Vargas rode his bike to the Mountain View DMV across the street from Target and tried to apply for a driver's permit. He did not know the green card supplied by his relatives was fake until the attendant told him. Just over a decade later, still undocumented, yet now a journalist, Vargas was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team of reporters at the Washington Post.

Vargas, who went to Crittenden Middle School and Mountain View High after arriving from the Philippines via Los Angeles, ignited a firestorm in 2011 by revealing his story in a New York Times Magazine article, essentially making him the country's most famous undocumented immigrant. He later made a film about his predicament and also founded Define American, a non-profit media project aimed at shifting the conversation about immigration and identity away from shout politics and toward the immigrants' own stories. To this day, he relentlessly appears at speaking engagements, film festivals, panel sessions and other functions, all in support of immigrants' rights. At this very moment, the city of Mountain View is building an elementary school named after him.

Now Vargas' life story, including everything before, during and after the aforementioned highlights, appears in his new book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Vargas structures the book in three sections: Lying, Passing and Hiding. He says this trifecta shapes the experience of all immigrants living illegally in a country that doesn't consider them American. We learn about his childhood in the Philippines, his coming of age and finding his voice as a writer in Mountain View, plus his life above and below ground as he continues to help elevate the stories of immigrants across the country.

In the book, Vargas elaborates how his own life of lying, passing and hiding has led to both heartfelt sympathy and outrage from both sides of the immigration debate, which is why nobody knows what to do with him. Those on the right keep shouting that Vargas should "go back home," when the US is the only "home" he's ever really known, or that he should "get in line" and "get legal" in the manner everyone else supposedly did. The reality—unbeknownst to most—is that there isn't any "line" for anyone to join, or any logical process for someone who's lived here 25 years. This is the entire problem. It's not like the DMV. His predicament isn't something that can be "fixed" like a broken tail light.

Similarly, on the left, people who've been fighting for justice and immigration reform for years feel slighted because Vargas is always in the spotlight, taking up way too much space. His arrival to the cause is way too late and his story is far too complicated. He grew up in a privileged city aided by suburban school administrators; therefore, those in the trenches, like the working poor and the undocumented day laborers, don't feel Vargas represents them at all. Pulitzer Prize or not, some progressives don't want him on board because, well, he committed fraud to get all his high-profile jobs, and they can't support that. In one hurtful exchange, a day laborer tells Vargas, "You're not even Mexican" and then walks away, obviously buying into the phony master narrative of who undocumented immigrants are and what they're supposed to be doing.

Yet in the end, Dear America shows that immigration is far beyond left or right, "legal" or "illegal," us or them. In fact, the book isn't even about politics. More than anything, Dear America is about homelessness, belonging and what it means to start over, showing how those predicaments are inseparable from any exploration of what it means to become an American. Immigration is just as much an internal condition as it is an external one. Through his own story and those of others, Vargas tries to shine a light on truths beyond skin color, ethnicity or birthplace, all in a universal longing for home.

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You came out as undocumented seven years ago. You've already made a film. Why was now a good time to write a book?
From the very beginning, when I had come out as undocumented, people were asking me about this book, I should be writing a book. And I kept pushing it away. I waited about six years to work on it because I didn't really know what I wanted to write about, to be perfectly honest. I'd already made Documented, so I didn't want to repeat myself.

Trump's election, of course, prompted the writing of this book. Then, what I kept thinking about was all of these undocumented people that I have met across the country. I've been to pretty much 48 states, and have done maybe more than 1,000 events in the past seven years, and I've met so many undocumented people. I kept asking myself, 'How could I write this book in a way that would honor all these other stories that I'd been hearing from everybody else?' When the editor and I came up with the structure of "lying, passing and hiding," it gave me the spine to write about my experience in a way that could speak to other people's experiences.

Jose Antonio Vargas stands with members of his actual and adoptive family, who over the years have worked to help him stay in the country and on the right track.

Yet the book is not really about Trump. How did you resist the urge to write an anti-Trump tirade?
This is bigger than Trump. The mess that we are living through is bigger than Trump. Trump is the manifestation of all the lies and all the misconceptions we've ever had about this issue. It's not an accident that immigration has always been Trump's central issue. That was brilliant on his part, because no one knows what the hell it is. There are many things in the book. People that have read the book, they're like, "Oh, I didn't know that." Yes, you hear about immigration, you read about immigration all the time, yet people only understand the "what" and the "how." People don't even investigate the "why."

Speaking of lies, people screaming on both sides of the issue often have no idea how the immigration bureaucracy works, don't understand who is or isn't coming into the country legally or illegally, how we arrived at this disaster, or what can be done to fix the process. Is reform even possible?
This whole mess has been bipartisan. There can be no reform until there's clarity about where we are and how we got to where we are. I would hope that this Trump era, that this whole era, is exposing us to greater truths about what this issue really is about. To me, one of the most dangerous things that has been happening is that the Trump administration has done a very effective job of blurring the lines between legal and illegal. It used to be, "Oh, did you do it the legal way?"—or so they would say. Now, it doesn't matter if you did it legally or illegally. The message is, "We don't want you here."

How was writing the book different than your other projects?
I actually allowed myself to get quiet. I'm not a quiet person. I like to surround myself by noise. I like juggling five things at once. Back when I got arrested in Texas and I was detained for those hours, there was nothing to do but look at the boys in the cell. There was nothing for me to do. I'd been running toward something, and now I wasn't anymore. I realized that except for being detained for eight hours, writing this book was the quietest thing I had ever done.

I wrote the book in Airbnbs. All across the country. There was one in Berkeley. In fact it was a really cheap Airbnb on the top of the hill, in which the only thing that I could go to was the Philz Coffee at the bottom of the hill. I did that. So there was no escaping. All I had to do was think, "OK, where else are you going to go, you're up on the hill in Berkeley, you should try to finish this freaking book." I kind of forced myself to be in physical spaces where I just couldn't leave, meaning I had to really deal with this book, which meant for me, dealing with myself. It was the best therapy I could have ever gotten for myself.

Between the lines of the book, a consistent thread that keeps circling back is the people in Mountain View who helped you pass in the early days, as well as others across the country that made phone calls on your behalf when you were detained in 2014. Was that thread intentional?
I wanted that to be kind of a thread throughout the book, that in every phase of the book there were all those people that were part of the lying and the passing and the hiding. Absolutely. It was intentional for me to integrate all of these people that I've had in my life, who have helped me out, throughout the book. But, I actually never called them "allies." I think that's limiting. Especially at a time like this, the language around "allies." I find the concept not only limiting but I find it too simple, because all those people were not just allies. They would never call themselves allies. Calling somebody an ally, it doesn't feel like there's much at stake. These people, they're like a part of my family.

I'm very proud to come from the Bay Area. I'm very proud to have been raised between 101 and 237. All of those teachers and mentors and strangers meant a lot to me. Most of those people are from that area. [So I told it] like, "Here's what they did, and this is why they did it." The stories for me that we haven't told enough of are the stories of those people. Like the stories of all these people who have been lying, who have been trying to help us pass, who have been hiding us. In many ways, I think they're the ones that need to come out.