Monday, July 4, 2011

Sympathy for the Undocumented

Michelle Malkin and Jose Antonio Vargas have more than a few things in common. They both come from Filipino families; they're both successful writers; they both have close personal connections to America's immigration system, and strong opinions about why it's fundamentally broken. That's where the similarities end.

Vargas came to the U.S. in 1993. He was 12 years old, sent by his mother to live with his grandparents in California. Two weeks ago he revealed to the world that no one had ever given him permission to do so:
One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. “This is fake,” she whispered. “Don’t come back here again.”

Confused and scared, I pedaled home and confronted Lolo. I remember him sitting in the garage, cutting coupons. I dropped my bike and ran over to him, showing him the green card. “Peke ba ito?” I asked in Tagalog. (“Is this fake?”) My grandparents were naturalized American citizens — he worked as a security guard, she as a food server — and they had begun supporting my mother and me financially when I was 3, after my father’s wandering eye and inability to properly provide for us led to my parents’ separation. Lolo was a proud man, and I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me. “Don’t show it to other people,” he warned.

I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.
Malkin came to the U.S. in 1970. She came with her parents—she would've had to, as she was a developing fetus at the time—and became an American citizen the instant she was born.[1] Here's what she thinks about Vargas' sob story:
Vargas believes his sob story is an argument for giving up on immigration enforcement and passing a mass amnesty. It’s a sob story, all right. Homeland security officials across the country should be weeping at the open mockery Vargas and his enablers have made of the law.
Ok, first of all, to my knowledge Vargas hasn't argued for "giving up on immigration enforcement and passing a mass amnesty", and there's really no basis for saying he has.[2] More importantly, this is a kid who entered the US at age 12, fully under the impression that he had the necessary documents to be here legally. He learned the truth at age 16. He learned the truth while trying to get his driver's license, which, for what it's worth, was the only thing I cared about when I was 16.[3] And if the one thing I had to do to get a driver's license was to break a federal law—a strictly bureaucratic law, the breaking of which requires no violence or physical taking of something that's not mine, and there's a decent chance I won't get caught—I'm having trouble imagining a scenario where I'd hesitate for even a second. Now, at age 27, I'd be more rational, but 16-year-olds are stupid. That's my point.

And once Vargas started lying and using fake documents—which, again, happened at age 16—he limited his options to (a) continuing to lie, or (b) leaving the United States forever.[4] What's the most important decision you had to make at age 16?

Vargas' story should be the impetus for a serious conversation about the harshness of our immigration laws, and in more reasonable circles, it has been exactly that. But in the case of the loudest voices for hard-line anti-illegal-immigrant policies, the story reveals the laziness of their rhetoric.

To Michelle Malkin, it's a black-and-white distinction—either he's here legally and can stay, or he's not and he has to go. I don't think that's the right way to look at it, but whatever, it's a position that's not entirely without merit. But the thing with black-and-white distinctions is that from time to time they produce unjust results. That's the trade-off you have to accept when you take the side of rigid adherence to the rule of law—there are going to be sympathetic cases, but if we don't make everyone follow the same rules we'll eventually not have any rules at all.

But Malkin takes it a step further, treating the black-and-white distinction between legal and illegal as if it's also the line between honorable and dishonorable. As if every person who finds themselves on the wrong side of an immigration law is a deceitful scumbag, deserving only of our scorn and a one-way plane ticket.

That's not how laws work. There has never, in human history, been a perfect overlap between legal/illegal and honorable/dishonorable, and there never will be. To suggest otherwise—and to suggest that our immigration system, of all things, is where this perfect overlap exists—is asinine. Either ignorant or willfully disingenuous, if not a little of both.

1. Initially I tried to write the first part of this article in the style of one of Paul Harvey's "Rest of the Story" segments, but it wasn't working—mostly because I'm awful at imitating someone else's style, and it seemed like it would be more confusing and distracting than anything else—so I scrapped it. And now… you know . . . the rest of the story.
    Anyway, more on Malkin in an upcoming post, which will probably be rather different than you might imagine.
2. Except to the extent that the DREAM Act, which Vargas supports, has been unfairly characterized as a "mass amnesty".
3. My birthday is always within a few days of Thanksgiving, and in the year I turned 16 it was the day after. (This was in Georgia, where, officially, the day after Thanksgiving is Robert E. Lee's birthday. Robert E. Lee's actual birthday is January 19. I'm not making that up. I couldn't make that up.) The DMV was closed, and remained closed until Monday. I couldn't get my license until three days after my 16th birthday, which was so upsetting I still remember it 12 years later. My point, once again, is that 16-year-olds are stupid. I didn't even have a car.
4. More or less. If he want back to the Philippines before his 18th birthday or within six months afterward, he could've immediately applied for a visa. Once he missed that window, he faced a ten-year bar—that is, he has to leave, then he has to wait ten years before he can even start the process of "waiting in line" for a visa.
    Except that the ten-year bar might as well be a 100-year bar, because there's no line for Vargas to wait in. He has no qualifying relatives in the U.S., no real prospects for an employment visa, and he's not eligible to enter the diversity visa lottery—the federal government is satisfied with our current level of Filipinos. Oh, and the document fraud he confessed to committing may make him permanently ineligible anyway.


  1. Thanks for this post.

    As a (legal) first generation immigrant of Mexican-Americans, I've disliked, all my life, how little understanding some Americans have had for those children stuck in the middle, who only know America as their country, but are told, over and over, that they are dangerous aliens. I hope your message goes far and wide. It's a humane message, and I hope it reaches all Americans.


  2. "Vargas' story should be the impetus for a serious conversation about the harshness of our immigration laws"

    Honestly? "the harshness"? I think the fact that Mr. Vargas was able to live in America for well over a decade and a half without having any legal standing in this country, during which time he was able to attend a publicly-funded university and afterwards occupy a series of staff positions at a major American newspaper, is a real testament to the "harsh" treatment he received from the government during his time here.

    No one knew about his status (except people he had told), no shadowy figures ever came to find him, no men in suits were even looking for him. Far from being "harsh" in any sense, that is about as gentle a treatment as I can imagine for an illegal immigrant in any country, short of an explicit abolition of the concept of citizenship by the government.

  3. I think there was a way for Vargas to immigrate legally but the Vargas family was just too good to wait. We had a similar situation in my family. Vargas's mother could have arranged for her family legally living in the United States to adopt him.

    Also Vargas made his own decisions once he found out about his citizenship status. If an American has to be responsible for crimes he committed at age 18 and after, so can Vargas. He chose to commit fraud and with that comes consequences. If I did half the things he did, I'd have a criminal record and be practically unemployable once I got out of prison.

    Furthermore, his being allowed to stay in this country is an insult to people who came here legally. My engineer father was born in poverty and wanted to come to America. So he worked his ass off for over a decade to put himself through school and help support his sick, widowed mother and some of his siblings. It took a long time but he got his work visa.

    I'm sick of these illegals demanding rights of a country that they are not citizens of. No one forced them to come here. A country has a right to make its own laws. I wouldn't go to Ireland and demand abortion should be legal or to China and insist that people should be allowed to have more than one child. Only in America can non-citzens demand things.