Documentation and identity

One of the the most read articles in the New York Times online in recent days is the story “My life as an undocumented immigrant,” written by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino who came to America as a young boy, completely unaware that his documents were fake. This legal deficiency hounds him from the moment he learns about it and becomes conscious of its implications.

Gifted and determined to succeed, Vargas finishes school and decides to pursue a career in journalism. He earns a university degree, immerses himself in countless training workshops, and is subsequently hired by the best news organizations in the United States. He does very well in a highly competitive field and it doesn’t take long before his talent and diligence are recognized. His brief professional resumé is capped by a highly coveted Pulitzer Prize that he shares with a team of writers. Yet, at every crucial turn of his extraordinary career, he runs into the walls of the glass cage he has internalized as an illegal alien. He finally decides to break out of this cage by writing this very public account of his status. Here is the link to the Vargas piece: http://www.nytimes. com/2011/06/26/magazine/my-life-as-an-undocumented-immigrant.html

This is not fiction. This is a poignant narrative that is enacted daily by millions of other immigrants, many of them Filipinos, who have come to America to settle down without the proper documentation. Unlike Vargas who worked in a very public setting, and was lucky to have access to well-placed people and sympathetic benefactors, many are forced to inhabit the dark shadows of America’s open society. They often fall victim to individuals who ruthlessly exploit their vulnerability—employers, sexual partners, spouses, and sometimes their own compatriots who extort money from them. They have no recourse to the rights guaranteed to citizens. And worse, because they live outside the law, they cannot enjoy the protection given to legal visitors.

There is a euphemism used among Filipino families who forever wait for the return of a sibling who has gone off to find his luck abroad.  “Hindi pa maayos ang kaniyang papeles.” (His papers are not yet in order.) It is a statement that is shared in whispers when a son or a daughter cannot come home to attend the burial of a parent, or when a parent cannot be present at the graduation of a precious child he or she has left behind. Their grief or joy is put on hold until their stay in the adopted country is legalized. And quite often, this never happens.

It is strange how modern man permits state bureaucracies to define who he is. If there is any force to what is called modernity, it has to be its erasure of the hallmarks of race, nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, or religion as the core of personal identity or as a measure of self-worth. The modern person has spent the last 200 years since the Enlightenment freeing himself from such traditional markers. That he should, at the end of this, find himself shackled by the conventions of the modern state has got to be the sharpest of all contemporary ironies.

Vargas must have been reacting to this piercing absurdity when he decides to unburden himself of the complex charade in whose perpetuation he has become complicit. He remembers distinctly how effortlessly he once declared his homosexuality in a class discussion at school, and how good he felt about his candor and forthrightness. If he had the fortitude to reveal something so immensely definitive about himself—i.e., his own sexuality—why should he now be timid about divulging something as ordinary as his nationality?

The simple answer, of course, is fear. Fear of losing everything he has built and earned for himself. Fear of uprooting himself from the country he has learned to cherish. Fear of putting benefactors who have helped him, as well as his own relatives who may be similarly placed, into trouble. Fear of being deported like a fugitive to the country he had left. Vargas manages to overcome these fears. He does so by making sure that his act would be meaningful not just in a personal sense, but also in a political way. He has set up “Define American,” an organization that hopes to influence the ongoing debate on immigration reform.

More concretely, his New York Times article breathes new life to a legislative proposal to grant permanent residency to young people raised and educated in America, but who, due to circumstances beyond their control, have remained undocumented aliens. They are American in every way, but their adopted country does not regard them as such. They are productive members of their communities, paying their taxes like everyone else, but they exist in a social limbo because their papers are not in order. They are lumped with common criminals, prone to profiling as terrorists, and generally treated as inferior beings. Yet, among them, one would usually find creative and pioneering individuals of the kind that built the dynamic new world that America once was. Do they need to enlist in America’s wars in order to qualify as authentic Americans?

In the last two years, Vargas says, more than 800,000 aliens have been deported. Today there are an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. Their presence will likely become increasingly visible as America’s economic crisis deepens and more and more jobs disappear. Economic problems and xenophobia tend to go together. It is a sure sign of decline when a society begins to be bothered by aliens in its midst.

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