Jose Antonio Vargas: thoughts on courage, even-handedness and honesty.

I like and need to have my mind involved in the affairs of the world– many affairs of the world that are much bigger than my own personal affairs.  Being close to and thinking about young people I count among the very important affairs of the world, but I also count and care about many other things.  On the affairs of the world front,  I seem to have stopped reading the newspaper again for a couple of weeks– inadvertently.  Lately, in addition to our local paper, we’ve been subscribing to the Sunday New York Times– but apparently I didn’t read the one in which Pulitzer winning, rising star journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant.  A stunningly courageous move, if you wonder what I thought about his decision to out himself.  If you wonder where I stand on the issue of his being an undocumented person who was sent here by his mother but without her, as a 12-year-old, and now wants to stay, I am on his side.  And not just because he was 12 when he came–but that does happen to be his story.

Maybe I heard a snippet of this story right as it broke among the very short snippets of NPR that I hear when I wake up and before I lunge energetically or sleepily depending on the day–  into my taking-care-of-my-daughter-getting things-organized-taking-people-places-setting-up-doctor-appointments-getting-the-groceries-responding-to-email-looking-for-work-and-many-other-things days.  In any case, I wasn’t fully aware of the story but it rang a bell when I happened to be in the car– on a longer drive (where?  I have no idea.) last Thursday.  At that time I caught, from start to finish, Terry Gross on Fresh Air interviewing Jose Antonio Vargas.  I won’t describe the interview, other than that it all made perfect sense to me in the context of a world filled with senselessness and that I was deeply moved by his story, his courage, his expression of his fears and by his integrity.  He is, after all, a 30-year-old, very experienced, journalist.  He tells his own story quite well.  So if you haven’t read it or heard him tell it– I’ve provided both the link to the New York Times story and the link to his interview with Terry Gross and you should read or listen to at least one of the two.

But I will say a few things.  I will say for starters that in my work as a lawyer, I handled immigration cases at one time and I have listened to many, many stories of undocumented people and how they came to be here and what happened to them before they came and after they arrived.  Most have been stories of great courage, losses, struggle.  Most have been stories that I have felt amazed that the teller was strong enough to live and stories I was honored to be entrusted to hear.  I helped some people to stay here and I made a big difference in a handful of lives, but I am certain that in hearing their stories, I gained every bit as much as my clients did from me.

I will also say that I don’t know where I would put myself on the religious spectrum (as in very religious?  probably not, but it depends on your definition, and maybe in some way I am).  But it is unquestionably embedded deep within me that the Torah says, and of course I am paraphrasing here, “welcome the stranger because we were strangers…” I think this phrase is repeated 36 times throughout the Talmud, and though I am definitely not a Talmudic scholar, I have always known that phrase to be a Jewish imperative and I have always felt it was a good thing to be commanded to do.  I believe that the imperative to welcome the stranger should apply equally rigorously to your neighborhood mom’s group, your school classroom, your workplace, who one talks to at any party or meeting or any gathering and to U.S. immigration policy.

I like Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air.  She doesn’t approach every subject as I might but that isn’t my criteria for liking or disliking an interviewer.  She invited a counterpoint to Mr. Vargas‘ story and I listened carefully, but something about it rankled long after the program ended.  I did a little research.  I read most of the hundreds of comments on the Fresh Air website associated with that program.  There is much to be said about US immigration policy, about Jose Antonio Vargas’s revelation and about the current focus within a segment of our country on scapegoating immigrants for the deepening economic woes and the many social challenges we face as a country.  Scapegoating is wrong and it will never lead to justice nor will it solve the problems that underly the situation when a scapegoat is chosen and scapegoated.  There are legitimate discussions to be had about what a rational and fair US immigration policy should be though this is not a piece about that, other than to say that my perspective is that there are moral as well as legal considerations with which we must grapple.

With respect to the many comments I read, I keep reflecting upon both the depth of caring and the level of vitriol reflected in the many comments. Misinformation and lack of factual information about various aspects of immigration law, as well as the lack of information about the circumstances under which people come here and what they do once here– is also on the troubling side.

But my whole point here is about the uneven-ness and the profound dishonesty of certain things that purport to be fair and even-handed.

Terry Gross invited someone who directs a neutrally named anti-immigrant organization here in DC and offered him 14 minutes and 4 seconds of air time to speak on his anti-immigrant views and his reasons for believing that Jose Antonio Vargas should go back to where he came from.  His is a mild-mannered speaker and not especially rhetorical, but after listening for just a few minutes, it was clear that this was someone on a zealous anti-immigrant mission.

He did talk a lot about his version of the history of the United States.  He made some assertions that in the history of the United States we needed immigration (ostensibly for economic reasons)  at an earlier time but we don’t need it now.  He entirely left out of his analysis a few things that I consider very important to the discussion; the whole part about European heritage people being, well– immigrants of a different kind, who landed here and tricked, harmed, stole from and committed genocide on the populations of the first nations of this land. He also didn’t discuss the reality that the reason we may not “need” immigrants (by which he meant cheap, underpaid labor) in the country at this time is that US corporate interests have found many ways to ensure their ability to secure their positions and their ability to exploit people (even cheaper, underpaid labor) in other countries so that the “needed” workers never need come to the US to be “useful” to us.  He didn’t analyze the broader context in which so many nations have lost control of their own resources, rendering them poor nations whose people now need to leave to survive.  He didn’t address the billions of dollars that Jose Antonio Vargas asserted undocumented people pay in taxes and though I have not checked on that figure I know from my own work that many out of status and undocumented people receive a TIN (tax identification number) and large numbers of people do work and make payroll tax contributions even though they are not here legally under US immigration law.  He also didn’t discuss the important Jewish, Talmudic teaching about welcoming the stranger.

But what really stood out as I reflected that night and the next day, and the next evening–was that Jose Antonio Vargas told his own story.  A very honest personal story.  Vargas does have a political point of view, an agenda in support of a retooling of the Dream Act— and it is informed entirely by his own story.  A story about which he is completely honest.  A story he lived and is living right now.  Currently he is just waiting; he may be deported for his truthfulness and he fully understands this.

So I thought that if Terry Gross actually needed to have a counterpoint to Mr. Vargas’ own life story which I am not at all sure she did, but if she did I am quite certain that her counterpoint should not have been asking her other guest about his conclusions about what correct immigration policies should be– but rather she should have asked him to tell his own story.

“What happened to you?  Who are your people and what happened to them? What in your own history caused you to want to keep immigrants out of the country?  Isn’t it too easy to look for others to blame for the problems in this country? Who blamed you or your people for things that weren’t your fault?  What terrible things have been said about your people and where were you not welcomed?   What are the problems you see that you have no idea how to solve and are desperate to find a scapegoat for?”

These questions sound facetious as I write them, but they are not.  They are exactly the kinds of questions she asked Jose Antonio Vargas.

Does fairness require that people’s deeply personal stories be counterbalanced with another personal story from a different experience?  I don’t think so– but I am sure that intellectual honesty and parity would require that if it was important to hear a different viewpoint, those are the kinds of questions we should ask of his critics.  Anti-immigrant scapegoating, no matter how it is couched, will never be part of a real discussion that will help build the kind of world I want to live in– but I would like to know, as you should want to find out with the bully in any situation, what happened to lead him there.

One response to “Jose Antonio Vargas: thoughts on courage, even-handedness and honesty.

  1. Harvey Pillersdorf

    Thanks Laura, for introducing me to Mr. Vargas’ revelation and the Terry Gross interviews. I’m a big fan of Terry Gross, but I missed this. I look forward to following up, reading and listing at the links you included. I appreciate your clarity about wanting balance through finding out what got the counterpoint person to his present, unwelcoming stance.

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