By Ruth Conniff
Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose mother put him on a plane to the United States from the Philippines when he was twelve years old, came out as an undocumented immigrant in 2011.
The unbearable anxiety of living in the shadows, which he vividly describes in his memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (HarperCollins), has occasionally driven Vargas to flirt with disaster. After founding the group Define American to advocate for immigrants like himself, he once called Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ask what the government planned to do with him. ("No comment" was the answer, he writes.)
In the spirit of "radical transparency," which became his guiding philosophy after he went public, Vargas answered truthfully to a question by an airport security agent near the border in Texas, declaring that he was in the country unlawfully. That led to his detention in a holding cell with a group of terrified Central American children. (Friends in high places helped get him out.)
While some people saw that particular episode as a self-aggrandizing stunt, in this book Vargas gives us the backstory--how his sense of displacement and the identity crisis it caused drove him to extremes. His personal story is the story of America's contradictions.
Sitting in detention in Texas, Vargas writes, he realized that Americas immigration system is not "broken," as politicians are so fond of saying. Instead, it serves its intended purpose--reinforcing power, delineating an arbitrary line between insiders and outsiders, "haves" and "have-nots." In Dear America, Vargas describes how he found out he was undocumented at age sixteen, when he applied for a driver's permit, and was turned away by a disgusted Department of Motor Vehicles employee. "Don't ever come back here," she hissed.
Vargas was lucky. He landed with relatives in California who lived on the edge of a wealthy school district. His teachers, and the wealthy parents of his friends, whom he copiously thanks, helped raise him.
Venture capitalist Jim Strand paid for Vargas's college education--launching a scholarship program Vargas now helps direct. Vargas chose San Francisco State, which didn't require standardized tests, so he didn't have to disclose his immigration status.
He built a brilliant journalism career, winning the Pulitzer as part of a team at The Washington Post. And yet, through it all, he suffered constant, wracking anxiety.
Vargas "came out" twice--once as gay, which got him tossed out of his home by his conservative, Catholic grandfather, then as undocumented. He disclosed his immigration status in an article published by The New York Times, after his editors at the Post, his journalistic home, accepted, edited, and fact-checked it--and then spiked it. The paper's ombudsman explored that decision in a column headlined, "Why Did The Post Deport Jose Antonio Vargas's Story?"
Over and over, in an effort to exorcise his own demons, Vargas has put himself on the line. On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly told Vargas, "You don't have an entitlement to be here." Right before another Fox appearance, Tucker Carlson told him, "I should have called ICE.... That would have been good TV."
That sort of casual cruelty has, unfortunately, become the norm in our Fox News culture.
Vargas's honesty, sincerity, and simple insistence on being himself shine a light of humanity in the darkness, reminding us of America's better self.
Ruth Conniff is editor-at-large for the Progressive.
By Jules Gibbs
Whatever history will call 2018 -- the Year of the Woman, or the Year of the Man, or the Year of the Immigrant--for those who lived through it, it felt more like the Year of Rancor and Dehumanization. One possible sane and restorative response is to turn to poetry, which allows us to find quieter spaces and retexturize the fineness of being that gets trampled in noisier arenas.
Here are three poets who speak with stunning attentiveness to our most urgent shared concerns.
Natalie Eilbert's Indictus (Noemi Press) is a most original book of poems about male brutality and female resiliency. The title is Latin for "not said" or "unheard," and the poems do the work of saying and hearing, bearing witness to violence but also to assertively imaginative and feminist responses to such acts.
The poems are, in effect, heroic performances, creations of image and speech that work against victimization and towards a woman-hewn construct of the self. Somehow Eilbert manages to do all of this in a din of rage, which I find singularly brilliant, and yes, cathartic.
From a series of poems in a section entitled "The Men Fall Away," she writes: "When I ask / men in the pews to stand and fix their laps, faith is a spotted / garment, a material to boast certain rupture. / The blank wind sails innuendos elsewhere, a blade / made dull by prescription .../ I quaked my flesh and smeared / like a white donkey left for the buzzing dark. I wrote / like I was waiting. Face to face with memory, the letter / misses. I saw I was ready to make use of loss."
Fatimah Asghar's debut poetry collection, If They Come for Us (One World), traces the lasting effects of forced migration. As an American-Pakistani Muslim woman, orphaned as a child, Asghar's poems are intimate but epic stories of women, mostly, that go otherwise unrecorded.
Seven poems in the collection bear the same title, "Partition," referring to the 1947 division of British India, where, as the epigraph to her book notes, many millions fled ethnic cleansings and retributive genocides. She considers the displaced, the spurned, the exiled, the ones who have lost their homeland, and how "the country no one wants creeps / into [their] every sentence."
I also recommend reading two books published this year by Tom Sleigh--a book of poems, House of Fact, House of Ruin (Graywolf Press), and a book of essays about his journalistic work in Africa and the Middle East, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing...