Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas' My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant essay in the New York Times has shocked just about everyone. I was shocked to learn that Vargas, whom I met briefly through Georgetown's Journalism program, built his Pulitzer-winning career entirely without papers. (Wow!) Other, more conservative Americans were shocked to learn that smart, accomplished people like Vargas are among the ranks of the undocumented in this country.
That's a great thing, but here's the not-so-good thing: not every illegal immigrant has the privilege to be able to publicly declare their status. If most undocumented immigrants did what Vargas did, they wouldn’t be cooed over, they’d be deported.
Although the larger, Open Society Institute-funded goal behind Vargas’ Define American project is to increase support for the passage of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) and the DREAM Act, it is, in actuality, a career boost for Vargas and a clear reinforcement of the power line between the haves and the have-nots. What is supposed to be a story about lack of privilege is, inadvertently, a story showcasing privilege.
This high-profile essay will act as a shield for Vargas against the actual legal ramifications of declaring his status, illuminating the sharp class divides that, ironically enough, make immigrants out of people tired of the fact that legal and economic exceptions will never be made for them in their home countries.Vargas will probably get a book deal from this essay, but millions of undocumented workers need something else from its publication. They need the passage of CIR and the DREAM Act. As a testament to all those people that can't wedge the the New York Times between themselves and Immigration Customs Enforcement agents, let's celebrate Vargas' story and lobby to change the laws that shaped it.