Not Legal Not Leaving

One year ago, Jose Antonio Vargas publicly revealed he's an undocumented immigrant. Now he reports on life in citizenship limbo and how others' 'coming out' can change the debate

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Gian Paul Lozza for TIME

Jose Antonio Vargas

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"I don't think I belong to a special class of people — not at all," I remember telling Sosnow. "I didn't get the license to spite you or disrespect you or because I think I'm better than you. I got the license because, like you, I needed to go to work. People like me get licenses because we need to drop kids off at school and because we need to pick up groceries. I am sorry for what I did, but I did it because I had to live and survive." Sosnow nodded, not exactly in agreement but at least with some understanding. We shook hands as the evening drew to a close. Months later, Sosnow told me he's written e-mails to the President and other elected officials, asking for immigration reform.

Everyday life for an undocumented American means a constant search for loopholes and back doors. Take air travel, for instance. Everyone knows that in the post-9/11 era, you can't fly without a government-issued ID. The easiest option for most people is their driver's license. Most states will not issue a license without proof of legal residency or citizenship. But a few grant licenses to undocumented immigrants, New Mexico and Washington State among them. Like many others, I had falsely posed as a Washington State resident in order to get a license. Weeks after my coming-out essay was published last year, Washington revoked the license — not because I'm undocumented but because I don't actually live in Washington.

For those who don't have a driver's license — that includes me now — a passport from our native country can serve as ID. But it makes every flight a gamble. My passport, which I got through the Philippine embassy, lacks a visa. If airport security agents turn the pages and discover this, they can contact Customs and Border Protection, which in turn can detain me. But for domestic flights, security usually checks just the name, photo and expiration date, not for the visa.

We may be nonpeople to the TSA but not to the IRS. Undocumented workers pay taxes. I've paid income taxes, state and federal, since I started working at 18. The IRS doesn't care if I'm here legally; it cares about its money. Some undocumented people, of course, circumvent the system, just like some citizens. But according to the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, households headed by undocumented workers collectively paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2010 — $1.2 billion in income taxes, $1.6 billion in property taxes (because undocumented immigrants do own property) and $8.4 billion in consumption taxes. We also pay into Social Security. Even as many of us contribute, we cannot avail ourselves of a great deal of the services those tax dollars pay for.

When you lack legal status, the threat of deportation is a constant concern. In three years, Obama has deported 1.2 million; it took President George W. Bush eight years to deport 1.6 million. "Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, we have reversed ourselves as a nation of immigrants," Bill Ong Hing, a veteran immigration lawyer, told me. (Indeed, nations like Canada now have higher percentages of immigrants than the "melting pot" of the U.S.)

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