Earlier this week, Jose Antonio Vargas, an illegal immigrant, gave an emotional speech during the Testimony on Comprehensive Immigration Reform. He reprimanded the congressional panel for “inaccurately” calling him an “illegal” and thereby “dehumanizing” him and insulting his family in the process. Vargas proudly stated that he was one of the 11 million “undocumented” immigrants but that does not make him an “illegal” immigrant. He claimed to be as much an American at heart as anyone else. Vargas put forth two pointed questions to the congressional leaders: “What do you want to do with me?” and “How do you define American?” As a student of American history myself, and an immigrant to the United States, I feel compelled to respond to his speech and especially his questions.
As a first generation immigrant who came to the United States legally, I find Vargas’s story touching but full of holes. For example, during his speech, Vargas repeatedly made it a point to highlight his sexual orientation. What precisely does his being gay have to do with his legal status? Is he suggesting that the American government is targeting him because he is gay? Just because he is gay, should that absolve him from being illegal too? Should we assume that all illegal immigrants to the United States are gay as well and thereby require special attention? I am unclear as to what purpose his sexual orientation served in discussing illegal immigration unless of course it was simply to emotionally sidetrack leaders from the main issue at hand.
Vargas mentioned that he arrived in the United States as a child and was unaware of his illegal status until later-that is to say, it took him 12 years to admit that he was in the country illegally. Yet, he wants Americans to recognize that he, as other illegal immigrants, “dream[s] of a path to citizenship” to “actively participate in” the rights of American citizenship. Sorry to disappoint Vargas but illegal immigrants are not the only ones who “dream” of becoming American citizens.
Many of us, who arrived here legally, confronted challenges of our own and had to make personal sacrifices to get here as well and we did not break laws to do so. My family waited patiently for almost a decade before we gained admission to the United States. During that period, we cut corners to save money and gave away precious personal belongings to meet the number of things we could bring with us. The stress of managing our finances and saving money to make the long trip alone took a serious toll on my family. I recall, as a child, standing in long queues at the Indian Embassy for endless hours under the blazing heat and humidity of an Indian summer with my father. We waited patiently, on more than one occasion, to fill out stacks of papers required to gain permission to enter the United States. The pain of leaving family and friends behind was as real for us as it is for illegal immigrants.
When we arrived in the United States, we worked hard as a family to survive. Unlike Vargas, my siblings and I did not have benevolent friends and family to offer us private scholarships to attend college to pursue our ambitions. Instead, we worked at fast food restaurants and retail stores to help the family and save for higher education. The politics, culture, and traditions of our new country were unknown to us and we remained anxious about our future as a family and as individuals. Through it all, we worked together, never relying on the Government to do the job. My father worked hard despite his failing health, standing up for several hours on legs that were unable to support him any longer. My parents were unaware of the welfare state; they only knew how to work to provide for their children’s needs.
Over the years, millions of immigrants have arrived in the United States legally. Many of them made similar sacrifices to get here. Do we ignore their sacrifices and give illegal immigrants an easier path to citizenship? Would this not be hateful towards those who continue to struggle but follow legal procedures to obtain the same American Dream? For someone who claims to love America, how patriotic is Vargas when he feels that there should be no difference between illegal immigrants enjoying the same benefits as those who become American citizens legally? By demanding the same privileges of citizenship for illegal immigrants, Vargas insults me, the sacrifices of my family and all those who arrived here legally. As he did with the congressional panel, I ask Vargas his own question: What do you want to do with me? What do you want to do with the millions of immigrants who arrive in America legally by making personal sacrifices of their own?
Vargas also asked, “How do you define American?” I ask Vargas, “How do you define crime?” What precedent is Vargas willing to set for the country he claims to love by asking, nay, demanding that crime no longer be defined as crime? Despite his emotional appeal, the point is that he is an illegal immigrant in the United States. Illegal by definition means “unlawful.” Offering complete amnesty to illegal immigrants does not help the United States. Instead, it only sets a precedent for future violators to follow suit without fear of repercussions. Clearly, Vargas is a talented young man but to think that all illegal immigrants aspire to achieve the same objective is foolhardy.
Illegal immigration is an important issue and politicians must tackle it. Yet, politicians should refrain from uplifting one group and minimizing the difficulties and sacrifices of another. Immigration reform needs a careful analysis and must remain a fair practice for all. As President George Washington once said, “foreigners” could become citizens by “a uniform rule of naturalization.” Thereby, all immigrants to the United States should follow a “uniform rule” to gaining citizenship. Surely as a “student of American history” Vargas can appreciate the sentiments of our Founding Father and first President. The government of the United States would benefit from remembering to stand up for solid American principles instead of bundling under pressures of the latest upheaval even if it comes under the guise of heartfelt but misplaced declarations.