Jose Antonio Vargas (2018) Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.

I’m not American, nor undocumented. I’m not a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. I’m a British citizen, born in Scotland who voted for independence in the recent referendum. I’d qualify for an Irish passport on my father’s side and probably my mother’s too. Neither of them was born in Ireland. A product of the great diaspora, when the population of Ireland halved from around 12 million citizens, and then almost halved again. President John F. Kennedy’s grandparents made it to the land of the free: America. He wrote a book about it, A Nation of Immigrants, which did not touch on the bootlegging, gunrunning and sharp business practices his father used to get rich. The moron’s moron, President Trump’s grandfather emigrated from Germany. His mother, I’m sad to admit, was born in the Scottish islands.  

 A generation ago, there was a mass shortage of housing in Britain (sound familiar?) private-let landlords had signs: No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs. Scotland is a nation of dog lovers. And not many blacks lived here, and that’s not changed much. So it was a straightforward, No Irish, but that needed qualification. The Northern Irish Protestant varieties were warmly welcomed. It was the Catholic variety of Irish nationality that were called unpatriotic and a threat to the Protestant religion. Jose Antonio Vargas reiterates a maxim: We were over here because they were over there.

Terra nullius, Ireland was an empty land, apart from the indigenous tribes. Long periods of invasion across the Irish Sea, from Oliver Cromwell onwards, religious bigotry were combined with acts of genocide, the first country to feel the might of the British Empire before it had an Empire. The six counties of Brexit British Ireland are the last vestiges of colonialism in which Irish Catholics were moved from the land in much the same way they deposed American Indians and sent them to the unliveable rocky outlets. The grievances against King George III inherent in The American Declaration of Independence were much the same as those fighting for Irish independence. A country and its people should be able to define and defend its borders, but Irish insurrections were quickly put down, whereas in America, the common people won. Where people came from mattered less than the cause for which they were fighting. The Statue of Liberty enshrined this notion with the mantra: Give me your poor huddled masses. Varga notes the first documented case of a minor arriving unaccompanied was a little girl fleeing the famine, and arriving on Staten Island.

Vargas’s Dear America is a polemic written for the world’s migrant population.  He tells us the statistics, 258 million in 2018 and counting. He’s one of them. Which is another way of saying he’s one of us.

He tells us on the flyleaf how this came about.

‘My name is Jose Antonio Vargas. I was born in the Philippines. When I was twelve, my mother sent me to the United States to live with her parents. While applying for a driver’s permit, I found out my papers were fake. More than two decades I am still here illegally, with no clear path to American citizenship. To some people, I am the ‘most famous illegal’ in in America. In my mind, I am only one of an estimated 11 million human beings whose uncertain fate is under threat in a country I call my home.’ 

In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 pilots in the 256th US Army Air Squadron, such as Captain John Yossarian fear their commanding officers are out to get them more than they fear the Germans they are ostensibly fighting. But he had to admit the devilish beauty of Catch-22. He’d be crazy to fly more bombing missions, but if you applied for an exemption not to fly that proved you weren’t crazy enough.   

Jose Antonio Vargas, aged 37, who has lived in America for 25 years as an undocumented immigrant falls into the category of those illegals that should be banished for at least three years if they’ve lived in the country without proper documentation for six months. If they’ve lived successfully in America longer than six months, for a year or more, the banishment lasts ten years. Vargas needs to return to the Philippines and apply for American citizenship in ten years, which will not be granted because he’s already being living here as an illegal, which is illegal. But he notes the American government still expects undocumented workers to pay federal taxes and there’s an official form ITIN which brings in billions of dollars every year. Ranging from $2.2 million in Montana to an estimated $3.1 billion in California.

Kurt Vonnegut, Wompters, Foma and Grandfalloons touches on this generalisation overstretch which applies to poor people in general and immigrants in particular. Rich men control the master narrative of The Little More Theory of Life:  

‘It goes against the American storytelling grain to have someone in a situation he can’t get out of, but I think this is very usual in life. And it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture that we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is an implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved.’

Conservative Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose parents Sushi and Anjana arrived from Uganda in the 1960s, admits that under the current system they wouldn’t be allowed into Britain, which is fair enough, but illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into Britain because they haven’t went through the proper channels, but there is no other way of getting into Britain other than being, for example, a multimillionaire oligarch. The Windrush Scandal also showed the tip of the immigrant iceberg and what in America is called ‘expedited removal’. Deporting immigrants before they can come before a judge that will hear their case. Priti Patel’s attack on the judiciary has been well documented.

I was surprised that President Obama (‘Deporter in Chief’) outgunned Bush and all other American Presidents, or that Hilary Clinton—scion of children’s charities—didn’t include children of immigrants in her beneficence. She wanted to send them back so as not to create a legal precedent or, in other words, to create waves. This reminded me of the scandal sheets, both joking and serious, about Priti Patel’s apparent idea to employ wave machines to keep out immigrants like her parents. But they didn’t arrive in boats. They arrived by plane. Vargas notes that most illegal immigrants arrive in America the same way. Despite the hype and ‘build the wall’ right-wing propaganda, they continue to do so. And like him, they’re not Mexican, but Asian.  

To protect us from who? asks Vargas. He exposes the hypocrisy that the most rabid and right-wing Republican states rely more on immigrants to pick their crops and take care of their children and old folk and process their food than others that require more skilled workers. At the bottom of any food chain, real or metaphorical, the immigrant can be found—as we’ve also found with our NHS, with the alleged Boris’s Brexit bonus of £350 million a week going back to pay for services was just another piece of propaganda swallowed by the tabloids and sold for mass consumption.   

While at the top of the food chain, the winners, not surprisingly, are the already wealthy. The cost Vargas suggests is ‘astronomically absurd,’ and getting more so. He quotes from a 2014 article published in Politico (remember this is prior the moron’s moron, Trump)

‘the US government spends more money each year on border and immigration enforcement than the combined budget of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service and US Marshals…more than $100 billion since 9/11 going to private, for-profit companies.’

Dear America, I know you well, from films and televison. From Casey Jones to Champion the Wonder Horse. From Mork and Mindy to the Fonz, in Happy Days. From Shirley Temple to  Laura Ingalls to Farah Fawcett and Charlie’s Angels the only part of you that wasn’t white was the Wonder Horse. Dear America, you won World Wars. You were the richest nation on earth, but China has galloped alongside and is overtaking you. Your reaction to Make America Great Again is an old trick from the old country. Blame the other. Blame the immigrant. Blame the poor for being poor. Jose Antonio Vargas still lives in America. He didn’t keep his head down. He called you out and got away with it—for now.  

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