At Politico Magazine today is a piece from Jose Antonio Vargas, highlighting the realities and restrictions of life when you’re an undocumented American. Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and one of America’s most famous and recognized immigrants ever since he came out in this 2011 New York Times piece, traveled to the Texas border to visit a shelter for children fleeing violence. But since there are checkpoints everywhere — and since he still does not have US documents — it’s unclear how he will be able to leave. Read his full story here or below:
I write this from the city of McAllen, which sits in the Rio Grande Valley near the border, just across from the Mexican city of Reynosa. In the last 24 hours I realize that, for an undocumented immigrant like me, getting out of a border town in Texas—by plane or by land—won’t be easy. It might, in fact, be impossible.
I flew into the valley Thursday morning to visit a shelter for unaccompanied Central American refugees and participate in a vigil in their honor. Outraged at the media coverage of this humanitarian crisis (these children are not “illegal,” as news organizations like CBS News and the New York Times call them), and frustrated by the political ping-pong centered on border security and increased enforcement, I also came here to share my own story of coming to the United States as an unaccompanied minor from the Philippines. I wanted to help change the narrative of the conversation and, with a camera crew, share stories from the shelter and its volunteers. The visit to the shelter was intense and sobering, watching small kids fight for their lives with nothing more than their spirits.
When my friend Mony Ruiz-Velasco, an immigration lawyer who used to work in the area, saw on my Facebook page that I was in McAllen, she texted me: “I am so glad you are visiting the kids near the border. But how will you get through the checkpoint on your way back?” A curious question, I thought, and one I dismissed. I’ve visited the border before, in California. What checkpoint? What was she talking about?
Then Tania Chavez, an undocumented youth leader from the Minority Affairs Council, one of the organizers of the vigil, asked me the same question: “How will you get out of here?” Tania grew up in this border town. As the day wore on, as the reality of my predicament sunk in, Tania spelled it out for me: You might not get through airport security, where Customs and Border Protection (CPB) also checks for IDs, and you will definitely not get through the immigration checkpoints set up within 45 miles of this border town. At these checkpoints, you will be asked for documentation. (“Even if you tell them you’re a U.S. citizen, they will ask you follow-up questions if they don’t believe you,” Tania told me.)
Neither Tania nor I qualify for deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA), a directive from the Obama administration that Republican leaders like Texas Gov. Rick Perry have inaccurately and irresponsibly blamed for the surge of unaccompanied youth crossing the border. President Obama announced DACA on June 15, 2012. Young children from Central America have been crossing for years, as Perry well knows. In fact, Perry’s letter to President Obama, supposedly warning him of the deluge, was dated May 4, 2012.
I do not have a single U.S. government-issued ID. Like most of our country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, I do not have a driver’s license—not yet, at least. (Recently, California and Washington, D.C., passed laws granting licenses to their undocumented residents. Though New York City will start issuing municipal IDs to its undocumented population, the state of New York, where I currently live, does not issue driver’s licenses.) Identification aside, since outing myself in the New York Times Magazine in June 2011, and writing a cover story for TIME a year later, I’ve been the most privileged undocumented immigrant in the country. The visibility, frankly, has protected me. While hundreds of thousands of immigrants have been detained and deported in the past three years, I produced and directed a documentary film, “Documented,” which was shown in theaters and aired on CNN less than two weeks ago. I founded a media and culture campaign, Define American, to elevate how we talk about immigration and citizenship in a changing America. And I’ve been traveling non-stop for three years, visiting more than 40 states.
Of course, I can only travel within the United States and, for identification, when I fly I use a valid passport that was issued by my native country, the Philippines. But each flight is a gamble. My passport lacks a visa. If TSA agents discover this, they can contact CBP, which, in turn, can detain me. But so far, I haven’t had any problems, either because I look the way I do (“You’re not brown and you don’t look like a Jose Antonio Vargas,” an immigration advocate once told me), or talk the way I do—or because, as a security agent at John F. Kennedy International Airport who recognized me said without a hint of irony, “You seem so American.”
I might not be so lucky here in the valley. I am not sure if my passport will be enough to let me fly out of McAllen-Miller International Airport, and I am not sure if my visibility will continue to protect me—not here, not at the border.
“So you’re in the same boat as I am,” Tania told me last night during a vigil across the street from the shelter. The vigil was organized by immigrant youth from the valley and held in honor of the refugee children.
Tania was born in Mexico, and she and her family moved 45 minutes north to the United States when she was 14. For years, she had a tourist visa that allowed her to travel back and forth between the two countries. But the visa expired. She can’t get other visas, and though she grew up in the United States and considers Texas to be her home, she’s undocumented. Even though she graduated from University of Texas-Pan American and has two master’s degrees, she is trapped, literally and figuratively, her life in limbo, her dreams on hold. She’s 28. Like many undocumented Mexicans who live near the Texas-Mexico border, she can’t return from Mexico if she goes, and she can’t travel outside of a 45-mile radius in her home in Texas.
“When I saw you arrive [this morning], I was like, ‘He’s here, this is real,’” Tania told me.
“You didn’t think I was going to show up?” I asked.
“It all happened so fast, organizing this vigil,” Tania replied.
I told her I didn’t think twice about visiting the Texas border. But I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and knew nothing about life as undocumented in a border town in Texas, where checkpoints and border patrol agents are parts of everyday life. I’ve been flying everywhere across the country—what would make this trip different?
As Tania and I sat together in a circle holding unlit candles, a crowd of about 30 people—mostly undocumented youth, a few citizen allies—started chanting something in Spanish, a language I don’t speak. Her head on my shoulder, with tears in our eyes, she translated the chant for me:
“No me digas illegal”/Don’t call me illegal
“Porque eso no lo soy”/Because I am not
“llegal son sus leyes”/Illegal are your laws
“Y por eso no me voy”/And that’s why I’m not leaving