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Should Jose Antonio Vargas be deported?

June 28, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. Last week he revealed that he is also in the country illegally and has been since his grandparents lied to bring him here as a child from the Philippines. His grandparents told him that he was supposed to marry a woman and get his green card; instead, Vargas turned out to be gay and uninterested in a green card marriage. His grandparents assumed he would work under the table at menial jobs and avoid attracting the attention of the authorities. Instead, he became a top notch journalist, albeit after he falsified paperwork and lied to employers in various newsrooms so he could continue working.

Vargas came to the U.S. illegally due in part to U.S. immigration law that wouldn't allow his grandparents to sponsor their married daughter and her children. Apparently legal immigrants are permitted to sponsor only their unmarried adult children. Vargas came alone with a falsified green card. He didn't learn he was here illegally until he was a teenager and innocently applied for a learner's permit with I.D. he didn't know was fake. He was tipped off by the clerk at the driver's license bureau who told him his I.D. was illegal and not to come back. By that point, four years after his arrival in the United States, he was highly Americanized and couldn't imagine returning to the Philippines.. It is probably unrealistic to say Vargas could have gotten on a plane at age 18 and headed back to the Philippines instead of breaking the law by staying in the country, attending college here and starting a career.

Vargas is exactly the sort of illegal immigrant the failed DREAM Act would have helped. It would give kids who were illegally brought to this country as children or teenagers and raised here a chance to stay here legally if they attended college or joined the military. Given the current economy and sentiment against illegal immigration in this country, the legislation had little chance of being passed.

There are probably millions of people in the same position Vargas is in, though he probably has an advantage over the average Mexican field laborer's kid. Vargas's New York Times Magazine spread about the years he's spent looking over his shoulder will ensure that he's too sympathetic to be deported. As we speak, someone is probably raising the money to pay for his immigration lawyer or lobbying Congress to push through a pardon or whatever is needed to get him his green card. Even if he doesn't get it, he's not going to be first on the list of people the United States wants to deport.

Vargas is a bright, hard working guy who paid his taxes and has worked continuously, exactly the sort of immigrant most people say they want in this country. He calls himself an American and says he should be able to stay. An argument could be made that Vargas has taken a job or an educational placement away from an American citizen, though he is so skilled at what he does that it's unlikely just anyone could have filled his spot. That isn't the case with a lot of young illegal immigrants, who are competing for jobs and college spots with young Americans.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Vargas. I've interviewed plenty of legal immigrants who were on a waiting list for up to 20 years to come to the United States legally, who took English as a Second Language and citizenship classes, went through background checks and immigration interviews and shelled out thousands of dollars for the privilege of finally becoming U.S. citizens. For those people Vargas's story has to sound pretty unfair. He and others like him snuck to the front of the line and are demanding that they be given for free what so many others paid dearly for.

Regardless of the outcome of Vargas's case, the United States needs to find a way to fix immigration law.


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