In Immigration Reform, Allies Must Join Activists

When it comes to immigration reform, we need to hear from American citizen allies who support undocumented immigrants like me.

President Obama makes a speech on immigration reform in San Francsico, on Nov. 25, 2013. Jason Reed / Reuters

I was not the only person who “came out,” so to speak, when the New York Times Magazine published an essay on my life as an undocumented immigrant nearly three years ago.

Pat Hyland and Rich Fischer, veteran educators who served as my mentors at Mountain View High School; Jim Strand, the venture capitalist whose scholarship fund paid for my college education; Peter Perl, a senior editor at the Washington Post who risked his career by keeping my secret — all of them “came out” too. As I prepared to publicly reveal my undocumented status in the spring of 2011, I reached out to Pat, Rich, Jim, and Peter. “You are a part of my story,” I told each of them, before asking permission to include them in my essay. No one objected. In fact, they insisted they be included. “I am proud of what I did,” Peter told me on the phone.

The voices of American citizen allies — from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, scattered all across the country — are largely missing when we talk about immigration reform. But theirs are precisely the voices that President Obama, who will urge for progress on immigration in his State of the Union address, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, who will release a set of principles for reform, need to hear in order to come up with fair, common-sense, and humane solutions to our shared immigration problem. And it is, in fact, a shared problem. Politics and partisanship aside, illegal immigration is not only about the 11 million undocumented immigrants like me who go to your schools, attend your places of worship, work alongside you, and pay taxes to contribute to society. It’s also about countless allies — from classmates to co-workers, principals to pastors — who are forced to deal with a broken immigration system.

What is someone like Peter supposed to do when he finds out that the young reporter he’s been mentoring is working in his newsroom without proper documents?

What is a high school principal like Pat supposed to do when she discovers that one of her students is undocumented and cannot apply for financial aid to go to college?

What would you do if you found yourself in Peter’s and Pat’s shoes?

There are countless Peters and Pats across the country, and Peter’s and Pat’s own voices are among those featured in Documented, a documentary film on immigration that I wrote and directed. The film, a special project of the media and culture campaign Define American, will screen in theaters across the county this winter and spring before airing on CNN. Appropriately enough, the film’s first theatrical screening this year will be on Monday, Jan. 27, in Mountain View, Calif., my adoptive hometown, where my mother in the Philippines sent me to live with her parents — my Lolo and Lola (grandpa and grandma in Tagalog), both naturalized American citizens — to give me a better life. (I come from a mixed-status household in which at least one person is undocumented. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are an estimated 17 million people in the United States living in such households.) Pat Hyland, Rich Fischer, and Jim Strand, whose scholarship fund does not discriminate based on immigration status, will be among those in attendance.

“There is always one moment in childhood,” Graham Greene once wrote, “when the door opens and lets the future in.” For me, a number of those doors were opened in Mountain View, where many of my lifelong allies and mentors guided and protected me when I was a lost and confused student in search of a future and a place in America.

Jose Antonio Vargas in Documented.

There is no doubt that undocumented immigrants will continue to “come out,” share their stories, and commit acts of civil obedience. Last year, undocumented youth known as DREAMers (named after the long-stalled DREAM Act bill) repeatedly confronted immigration agents and DREAMers’ Moms (undocumented mothers of DREAMers) visited congressional offices and organized rallies. Such actions will only increase in number and become more creative this year. But as Rep. John Lewis, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., recently reminded me, allies are at the heart of every civil rights movement, from the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to the LGBT rights movement of the past decade.

I’ve met many allies for immigration reform while traveling across the country. Early last year, after addressing a gathering at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minn., I met Kelli Porthan, a longtime teacher who established a scholarship called Walter’s Wish Fund to help students she’d been mentoring since third grade. Some of them, she later found out, are undocumented. And in fall of 2011, when I decided to film in Alabama after the state enacted an immigration law mirrored after Arizona’s infamous and disastrous statute, I met and filmed a farmer named Lawrence Calvert. Lawrence introduced me to Paco, his best worker and whom he treated much like a family member. Paco is an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, but his kids are U.S.-born American citizens. Lawrence, a lifelong Republican, worries for Paco and his children, whom he calls “mis nietos” — “my grandchildren.”

Speaking on immigration reform, which he supports, Lawrence told me, “The entire problem is that we haven’t sat down at each other’s table.”

Upon hearing Lawrence’s statement, I was immediately reminded of the words of Dr. King:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Those are among the many sentences I underlined as I read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as an eighth-grader at Crittenden Middle School, a relative newcomer to America, then unfamiliar with Dr. King and his legacy. The insistence on our common humanity, the need for empathy, the search for justice — all of that lives on, amongst all of us.

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