We’re All Complicit

After a day of seeing rapturous references to Jose Antonio Vargas’ article for the New York Times Magazine,I finally got to My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.

I haven’t even finished, but trust me, you really should read this.

I’m sure I’ll have many other reactions by the end of the article, but after describing coming to the US from the Philippines at age 12, I was struck by an incident Vargas describes from high school:

After a choir rehearsal during my junior year, Jill Denny, the choir director, told me she was considering a Japan trip for our singing group. I told her I couldn’t afford it, but she said we’d figure out a way. I hesitated, and then decided to tell her the truth. “It’s not really the money,” I remember saying. “I don’t have the right passport.” When she assured me we’d get the proper documents, I finally told her. “I can’t get the right passport,” I said. “I’m not supposed to be here.”

She understood. So the choir toured Hawaii instead, with me in tow. (Mrs. Denny and I spoke a couple of months ago, and she told me she hadn’t wanted to leave any student behind.)

All but the coldest-hearted will sympathize with Vargas. But we should also think of what the failure to pass the DREAM Act does to the rest of us, especially people like Jill Denny. She earned the trust of Vargas, and a price was learning of Vargas’ secret, which forced her to conceal her knowledge of an illegality. She had to choose between leaving behind a gifted and engaging student with a promising future, or curtailing the choir’s plan to go to another country and experience another culture, because to take her students through immigration checkpoints would exclude Vargas. I think she did the just thing, but it’s also a shame that doing so limited the opportunities for the other students in her choir.

It’s also important for us to ponder what such blatant disregard for the law does to our civil society. Teachers, medical professionals, police and emergency personnel, government workers, employers…how many Americans, by showing compassion and solidarity with young people who’ve committed no injustice, become complicit by flouting federal laws? And how many, in enforcing such laws, perpetrate an injustice against someone who is a fellow American in every way that matters except that they weren’t born on US soil?

One well-known problem with our immigration laws is that undocumented immigrants are vulnerable to exploitation, because to report illegalities committed against them would expose them to deportation. But it’s time we start assessing the costs to our civil society caused by millions of Americans choosing to overlook what’s illegal in the service of doing what’s just.

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One Response to We’re All Complicit

  1. Paul Lai says:

    I finally read this piece. It is definitely amazing. The focus on the “support network”–all the people who worked with Vargas to keep him in the country despite his undocumented status–is an interesting way to tackle the story and to address the immigration debate. I’m hopeful that the piece will do exactly what you suggest… encourage people to really take a look at what the draconian laws with respect to immigration status do to people who end up friends with undocumented people. I wonder if it would change much…. especially the way the immigration debate focuses so much (erroneously, I would argue) on the “drain” that undocumented immigrants make on public resources.

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