Book Review: Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

Wow. Honestly. I do not know what to say after reading this book, especially since I have never lived the author’s reality. Jose Antonio Vargas (no accent over the “e”, he talks about this in the book) discusses the complex narrative of being an undocumented citizen in the United States. His mother, who is from the Philippines, sent Jose to America when he was 12 so he could live with his grandparents. He never got an adequate explanation for why she did this, but he spent his whole life living undocumented in the country. Many people later on would ask him why he didn’t simply just apply for citizenship and get his green card, and I myself was guilty of thinking this way, but Jose lays it all out for us: it goes back to the history of the U.S. and its immigration policy, as well as the history of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. All of the presidents of the United States, including Obama himself, dealt with immigration poorly and the current president, as Vargas discusses in his account, is only making it worse with his constant overt anti-immigrant rhetoric.

As someone who is a born and raised citizen of my country, I took a lot of good things for granted. Even as a person of color, I do not have to worry about my status as a citizen. Even though people of color have been treated as second class citizens for many years in the U.S., I never have to think about my citizen status, which was why I would often be indifferent about my right to vote. I do not have to spend every waking hour wondering if ICE is going to deport me. The fact that I didn’t even think about what undocumented citizens go through each day of their lives is a sign that I have lived a privileged existence. I could go into my job and all I had to do was provide basic information, but for undocumented citizens like Jose, it is a whole different animal. Jose wanted to be a journalist for the longest time, and while he says he is fortunate to have had a lot of support from friends he met in school and on the journalism team there, he still had to navigate the tricky realm of not getting deported. The whole time I read this, I thought about a movie I saw a few years ago called Babel. It is really split into four stories, but one of the stories is about a Mexican immigrant named Amelia who takes care of the kids for this white couple in the U.S. named Richard and Susan. She goes to her son’s wedding even though Richard tells her she must stay with the kids. However, Amelia’s nephew, Santiago, offers to drive her and the kids there. After the wedding, Santiago insists on driving even though he’s drunk, and him, Amelia and the kids drive back home when border agents stop Santiago. Even though they show them their passports, they do not have letters of consent from Richard and Susan letting them take the kids out of the country. Amelia is later arrested by a Border Patrol agent and is told that while Richard didn’t press charges against her taking the kids out of the country, she will get deported because she is undocumented. This scene, along with the subsequent scene where she greets her son in Mexico in tears, had me bawling because Amelia had worked so hard to make it in this country, and had lived in America for more than a decade, had made family with Richard, Susan and their kids, and now it was over all because of unjust laws that dictated who was and who wasn’t a citizen.

It is also a stark reminder that America’s immigration system hasn’t changed much even with programs like DACA. At first, I thought, “Yes! Go DACA!” but as Jose reminded me in his memoir, DACA ain’t perfect. It may have allowed a few more people to come to the U.S. but still, there were restrictions based on age and other complicated factors. When I was in college, there was a huge movement to stand up for the rights of undocumented students, but I was indifferent to it. I was like, “hooray” but I never actually was a good ally because I never thought the issue pertained to me, so why bother showing up? Well now that I have read this book, I need to continue educating myself on immigration law and what undocumented immigrants have to go through all just to live the “American Dream”. In fact, this book made me seriously question what we meant all along when was said “The American Dream.” I remember learning about the various quotas placed on immigration during the late 19th century, but what I didn’t pay much attention to was the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that Congress passed after the Civil Rights Act and before the Voting Rights Act, both of which I studied quite a bit about in U.S. history class. Even though a lot of people (myself included) know little about the significance of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Jose says in the book that “between 1965 and 2015, new immigrants and their offspring accounted for 55 percent of U.S. population growth, according to the Pew Research Center” (Vargas, pp. 132). Kennedy, whose grandparents were immigrants from Ireland, welcomed immigrants, and like Jose, I think it is ironic that Trump doesn’t like immigrants because his grandfather is an immigrant from Germany. I of course cannot speak to having immigrant family because my family was forced to come here on slave ships a long time ago and I can barely remember their history (probably because their masters forbade them from reading and writing), but still, I had to laugh at the irony.

I remember a presentation that a friend of mine gave on her senior thesis on undocumented citizens and the impacts of U.S. immigration law on these people’s lives, and at first I was taken aback when she said President Barack Obama had played a huge role in deporting immigrants even with his promise of DACA. But during the Democratic debates, the other candidates were grilling Joe Biden on the platform because he and Obama deported a lot of undocumented citizens, and I started believing it more. But then I read Dear America, and I understand now that me ignoring what the rulers of our country did (like I said, it’s not just Obama, it was presidents before him that are accountable, too, and now the current president who screams about building a pointless and expensive wall between Mexico and the U.S. every chance he can get) was me letting my privilege make it seem okay to be apathetic about what is going on, when really it wasn’t okay. Jose didn’t have a say about coming to America, and also he had strained relations with his parents and grandparents, particularly after he came out as gay and they insisted he work hard and save his money and marry an American citizen who is a woman. On top of that, he doesn’t know if he will keep his job. I would be remiss to simply applaud Jose for sharing his lived experiences as an undocumented citizen with the world because that would cheapen the fact that he spent an entire 232 pages calling out the messed-up system for what it was. And he says it wasn’t by accident, which is pretty much true; America has been divided on how it treats immigrants for many years. This country was founded on the genocide of Indigenous peoples and later the back-breaking labor of black slaves who didn’t have a choice to come to this country, and it didn’t treat newcomers any better. Sure, it allowed European immigrants to gain access to racial whiteness and afforded them privileges so that many of them wouldn’t ally with black people, and other immigrant communities were used as pawns in the racial game, too. But it’s a complex history that cannot be summarized, and what’s more complicated is the relations between immigrants who have their green cards and immigrants who have struggled to get one but cannot (esp. because green cards are expensive). Some of the members in the audience at Jose’s lectures said that it wasn’t fair that he lived most of his life in the country as an undocumented person, while everyone else had to go through the process of being a citizen. However, it is important to understand each person’s situation. It’s easy to say, “Well it’s 21 Savage’s fault that ICE detained him,” and it was all I could do to keep from screaming at my fellow American citizen and friend, who was sitting right across from me as he said that very thing when I told him about 21 Savage. I then questioned myself, Was I being irrational by telling my friend it was wrong to shrug this off? But after reading Vargas’ book, I have a greater understanding of why I expressed such rage (and how little I actually knew about the immigration policy in the U.S. even after gaining a narrow knowledge of it in school), and now I understand that talking about immigration and citizenship is so hard because it involves so many things to talk about: the history of immigration, race, class, what is a citizen, what defines American, whiteness, implicit bias, and, moreover, person-hood. I did not do Jose’s memoir justice, but writing about how powerful this book is certainly has helped me process everything I just read about the messiness of U.S. immigration policy and its long-lasting effects on individuals and their loved ones.

Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas. 2018. 232 pp.

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