The triumph and tragedy of Jose Antonio Vargas

For the last many years, my childhood friend, Jose Antonio Vargas (we just called him “Jose”) has been challenging documented and undocumented Americans alike to define what it means to be American. 

I decided to take him up on that question. How do I define American? It’s the freedom to struggle, and the freedom to reap the rewards. It’s the freedom to do what you think is right, for yourself and for your family. And it’s freedom from fear. If I had to choose just one word, that would be it. Freedom. 

Jose has lived the American dream. He’s an entrepreneur, running his own organization, Define American, that is so tied to his being right now that it probably defines him. He rubs shoulders with the likes of Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg. He won a Pulitzer Prize. When I was a grad student at Harvard, Jose guest lectured one of my classes. Mark Zuckerberg calls him a good friend. Jose lives the American dream because he started with nothing. 

He arrived from the Philippines as a young boy speaking only a few words of English. I met him when we were pre-teens at the same middle school in the Silicon Valley suburb of Mountain View, California. He called me “Buckley Buckley” and I gave him a lot of immaturity. He took everything so literally. I’d roll up my sleeves and say, “Hey Jose, wanna box?” He would reply, “What box? You don’t have a box.” 

I eventually did face off with Jose in the eighth-grade spelling bee. I lost on the word “indefatigable.” I put two t’s in it. 

On the other hand, Jose is stuck in a uniquely American nightmare. He has broken the law but no one will arrest him for it. He lied, under the penalty of perjury, on his W2’s while employed for several large publications. He lied to the state of Oregon when he got his driver’s license because, he discovered, they don’t require citizenship documentation, like a valid social security card.

He tried to get his driver’s license in Mountain View, at the same DMV office where I got mine, but they turned him away. Your social security card isn’t valid, they told him. And then his grandpa confessed: “We brought you here illegally, Jose. You don’t have papers.” Jose was 16 years old then, and he decided to keep it a secret from his friends and employers until three years ago when he outed himself in the New York Times. 

Indeed, Jose lived the American dream, but he lived it illegally. 

I have a different question than the one Jose’s been asking. It’s a question for his critics.

Would you have done anything differently? Would you have left your life, your future, your family of 10 years when you were 16 years old simply because you didn’t have a green card? When you got a scholarship for a full ride to a college of your choice, as Jose did, would you have left then? How about when you found your true calling, that you could interview and write and think in terms of columns and storylines better than any of your peers? Would you leave a promising career in journalism because you still didn’t have a piece of paper that defined your American-ism? How about after you won the Pulitzer or got an elementary school named after you?

There are a lot of people saying Jose should deport himself if the authorities won’t do it. They say he should get in line and subject himself to our broken immigration process. To these people I ask one simple question: Would you do that? Think about it. Honestly. 

Jose’s life is not in the Philippines. His family is there, but his life is here. His 30 years of hard work and good luck are in these United States. The same United States that embraced my ancestors when they immigrated when the process meant hours at Ellis Island, not years in a desert of politics and bureaucracy. I can tell you this. If I were Jose, I’d have done the same thing. 

Ultimately, the people who vilify Jose for refusing to leave are missing the point. The fact that he’s still here is actually what makes him American. 

After all, what’s more American than breaking a few rules for something you believe in?

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