Jose Antonio Vargas — America's best known undocumented immigrant — was detained last week while attempting to pass through airport security at a Border Patrol checkpoint in McAllen, Texas, where he had traveled to report on the experience of undocumented migrants.
Vargas, who outed his immigration status in a story he wrote for the New York Times Magazine in June 2011 and runs the “Define American” immigration-awareness campaign, was released hours later, but his brief incarceration helped bring attention to the difficulties faced by thousands of undocumented people in the Rio Grande Valley — where border patrol checkpoints extend well into US territory.
Though the overall number of undocumented migrants crossing the border has dropped in recent years, the polarized debate about immigration has reignited this summer over a surge in the number of undocumented minors fleeing poverty and crime in Central America and crossing into the US.
Despite several advocates referring to the surge as a “humanitarian crisis,” the unaccompanied children — many of whom are potential asylum seekers — have been met with protests, anti-immigration rhetoric, and political stalemate.
VICE News caught up with Vargas and discussed the crisis on the border, xenophobia, stalled reform in Washington, and the way forward for immigration advocates.
VICE News: We published a piece some time ago called “Whatever Happened to Immigration Reform?” It seemed to have just vanished from public discourse. What do you think happened, and why?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Republicans say they cannot trust President Obama to enforce the laws. The same President Obama, mind you, that has enforced the law in record numbers: nearly 2 million deportations in five years, so much so that he has become 'Deporter-in-Chief.' And that summarizes where immigration reform is: imprisoned by partisan politics, particularly by House Republicans in a dysfunctional Congress battling Obama. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats look on while detentions and deportations continue.
'To me, the downright racist and xenophobic reactions of some Americans towards the Central American children… signify the real fear and anxiety we have towards our growing Latino population.'
As reform stalled, the immigration debate seems to have moved on to more urgent tasks, such as stopping deportations, that need to be dealt with because of the absence of reform. Do immigration advocates like yourself keep fighting both fights? How do you prioritize?
Stopping deportations and needless separations of families is priority number one. But there are many fights on multiple fronts and all hands are on deck. We fight against detentions, fight for continued relief for immigrants (like expanding the Obama administration’s deferred action program), fight for the dignity of undocumented workers, and fight for changing the culture in which we talk about immigrants and their roles in our diversifying society. Passing immigration reform won’t solve everything. That’s why at Define American we are committed to challenging media and creating media to change culture.
In recent weeks there have been a number of anti-immigration rallies across the country, some of them targeting unaccompanied minors in particular. All this despite the fact that the number of immigrants caught crossing the border remains, overall, at near record-low levels. Where does all this fear and rejection come from, particularly when it comes to children?
Save for Native Americans, who owned this land, and African-Americans, whose forced migration built this country, we are a country of immigrants who are always wary of newer immigrants. Look at the history of the Irish immigrants, the history of Italian immigrants, the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
'America is White and Black and Latino and Asian. America is mixed. America is immigrants.'
To me, the downright racist and xenophobic reactions of some Americans (and politicians) towards the Central American children — “Deport the children! Deport them now!” — signify the real fear and anxiety we have towards our growing Latino population. Latinos are the largest minority group in the US, Asians the fastest-growing racial group. For all the struggles that the new Irish and Italian immigrants faced, many decades later they were considered as Whites. I’m not sure if Latinos and Asians will ever be considered as Whites. And, frankly, I'm not even sure what being “White” means. White is a social construct, like Black. And with young immigrants (mostly Latino and Asian, from all ethnicities) remaking our country, the question is: how do you define American?
Politics aside, does the rejection of immigrants say something bigger about our society as a whole, our collective capacity for compassion not only toward foreigners, but also toward the poor or the “different?”
It’s not just immigrants — the “other” in America is all of us. Demographically and culturally, that’s where we are headed. For most of our history, America has always been defined by the White and Black dynamic. That’s no longer the case. America is White and Black and Latino and Asian. America is mixed. America is immigrants. America is the “other,” and we must embrace the “other” in all of us.
'With all the billions of dollars and manpower that we’ve spent on the “border,” what exactly are we protecting ourselves from? Who exactly are we fearing?'
When you were detained last week, I think a lot of people were surprised to learn that there are immigration checkpoints well into US territory, and not just along the border. How legal is this, and how is this presence challenged?
I’ve been traveling non-stop for the past three years but that was my first time at the Texas border, which is some kind of overly militarized, Constitution-free zone in which checkpoints and border security are not only ubiquitous, but a way of life. It’s normal. Look, I understand the argument that a civilized country needs to determine and protect its borders. I get that. But with all the billions of dollars and manpower that we’ve spent on the “border,” what exactly are we protecting ourselves from? Who exactly are we fearing? What exactly is at stake?
I think we — individually and collectively — must challenge how we fund and politicize this border. And we must learn about the history of this border: the role of NAFTA and trade agreements in Mexico and Central America, the fact that Mexico used to own Texas, the reality that the migration of people is natural.
What were you working on in Texas, and what did you find there?
Frustrated by the media coverage and political rhetoric surrounding this humanitarian crisis, I flew to the Rio Grande Valley to join other undocumented immigrants from a local group called the Minority Affairs Council visiting a shelter for Central American children and refugees, and to participate in a vigil in their honor. Define American produced a couple of videos from our time inside the shelter, interviewing a volunteer and a refugee. Deep thanks to my friend Paola Mendoza, a wonderful filmmaker, for doing the interviews.
Shortly after arriving in the valley, I found that I knew nothing about undocumented life in a Texas border town, where checkpoints and border patrol agents are parts of everyday life and undocumented immigrants are basically trapped.
Do you agree with people who characterize the current situation as an “immigration crisis,” and do you think we have reached some sort of breaking point, or is there a risk that things will continue to go on as they have, with political solutions continuing to stall? Are progressive measures such as New York City’s municipal ID, to name one, just small gestures to patch up the problem, or do they constitute a basis for a more fundamental change to come?
For undocumented immigrants, every day is a struggle and every bit of relief counts. Since Congress, particularly House Republicans, refuses to act and find a solution, it’s up to Obama to provide relief to immigrant families. Cities and states have a role to play too, from offering municipal IDs to issuing drivers’ licenses to their undocumented residents who live, work, and contribute in their communities.
'Parents send children to America for a better life, not to crash some party.
Some immigration critics are rallying against the so-called “Central American exception.” The US has a very problematic history in the region and US support for certain Central American governments has contributed in a very real way to current migration waves from many of these countries. Does the US have a particular moral, “historical” responsibility toward these people?
Let me quote Glenn Beck — yes, that Glenn Beck. To the shock of everyone, including me, this is what Glenn had to say about what you’re calling “a very problematic history”:
America has meddled in the affairs of Latin America for long enough. America needs to zip her mouth. We had the Monroe Doctrine, the Mexican-American War, our involvement in the Mexican revolution, Nixon's support of the violent Chilean coup in 1973. Progressives on both sides have routinely practiced intervention in the name of our national interests. Well, let me quote Dr. Phil. How's that working out for you? For all of our efforts, our nation's backyard is now one of the most corrupt places, violent places, on planet Earth, and now it's spilling in to our backyard, right into our backyard. It's not even on their neighbor's side of the fence anymore. It's right here.
'People use the words "illegal" and "Mexican" interchangeably. As if all Mexicans are undocumented. As if all Latinos are Mexicans. As if there’s something wrong with being Latino or Mexican.'
You are really focused on the words used in the debate: undocumented vs. illegal, unaccompanied minors vs. border crashers, and so on. Why do words matter so much in this struggle?
Define American has been at the forefront of challenging the language we use to frame the conversation. And using terms like “illegal” and "border crasher” dehumanize people and promote violence and discrimination. They send the message that immigrants are sub-human and undeserving, and they confuse the immigration debate. Parents send children to America for a better life, not to crash some party.
Words matter because they contextualize the conversation and signify what’s at stake. Can you think of another instance in the American vernacular in which a group of people is called “illegal”? Think. Hard. Among the most tragic things that I discovered in the past three years is how people use the words “illegal” and “Mexican” interchangeably. As if all Mexicans are undocumented. As if all Latinos are Mexicans. As if there’s something wrong with being Latino or Mexican. This is why it’s irresponsible — not to mention inaccurate — for news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post, among others, to use that term. Human beings cannot be illegal. The action may be illegal, but not the person.
Did you know when you revealed your undocumented status in that Times article that this is what you were about to get into? You have said that your fame has turned you into something of a privileged exception among undocumented people in this country. Are you ever actually scared it won't always help? Were you scared in Texas last week?
It’s been imperative for me to stay grounded and centered on who I am and who I am not: I’m not an organizer. I’m not a leader. There are many activists and advocates who are organizers and leaders and I never claimed to be one of them. I get attacked by the left and the right. I get accused of many things and get called various names from all sides. And that's why being centered and knowing who I am is important. What I am is a writer, a filmmaker, an evolving artist who is striving to be as creatively disruptive as possible — to disrupt the paradigms and stereotypes that we have grown accustomed to when it comes to this issue.
Inaction is unacceptable.
For 14 years — and throughout all my 20s — I practiced journalism by writing and reporting about other people so I didn’t have to face my own life. The past three years I’ve been learning to face myself, all the flaws, the lies, the pain — all of it. It’s also been critical to own up to my privilege but at the same time not be defined by it. I’m the “privileged” person trying to reconnect with a mother whom I have not seen for almost 21 years. I’m the “privileged” immigrant who, the moment I got arrested and handcuffed, all I could think about was calling my grandmother and telling her not to worry. Since outing myself three years ago, I have prepared myself for everything and anything, including deportation. What I did not prepare for was inaction. Inaction is unacceptable.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi