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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Gian Paul Lozza for TIME

Jose Antonio Vargas

(6 of 9)

A big driver of the deportation numbers is ICE's Secure Communities program, which was meant to target terrorists and serious criminals but also winds up snaring those whose only crimes are civil violations connected to being undocumented (like driving without a license). Students and mothers have been detained and deported alongside murderers and rapists.

Depending on how the politics plays to the local electorate, many states wind up writing their own immigration laws. Two years ago, Arizona passed SB 1070 — its "Show me your papers" bill — then the strictest immigration law in the country. It embodies an attrition-through-enforcement doctrine: the state will so threaten the livelihood of its undocumented population that they will just give up and self-deport. Among the bill's most controversial provisions, currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court, is one giving law-enforcement officials the power to stop anyone whom they suspect to be "illegal." Arizona's law inspired copycat bills across the country.

For all the roadblocks, though, many of us get by thanks to our fellow Americans. We rely on a growing network of citizens — Good Samaritans, our pastors, our co-workers, our teachers who protect and look after us. As I've traveled the country, I've seen how members of this underground railroad are coming out about their support for us too.

'So you're not Mexican?'

an elderly white woman named Ann (she declined to give her last name) asked me when I told her about my undocumented status last October. We stood in front of a Kohl's department store in Alabama, which last year outdid Arizona by passing HB 56, the country's most draconian immigration law. HB 56 requires public schools to collect the immigration status of new students and their parents and makes it a felony for anyone to transport or house an undocumented immigrant. Both provisions are currently blocked by federal courts pending a ruling.

Ann, a registered Republican, was born and raised in the South, where immigration is introducing a new variable into the old racial divide. Alabama's immigrant population, though still relatively small, has nearly doubled in the past decade. The state's Latino population alone grew from 1.7% of the overall population in 2000 to nearly 4% in 2010 — about 180,000 people, according to Census figures. But when I told Ann I am Filipino, she scrunched her forehead. "My border," I explained, "was the Pacific Ocean."

Though roughly 59% of the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico, the rest are not. About 1 million come from Asia and the Pacific Islands, about 800,000 from South America and about 300,000 from Europe. Others come from Nigeria, Israel, pretty much everywhere. In the case of countries that don't share a border with the U.S., these are almost always people who entered the country legally — as vacationers or on temporary visas — and overstayed the time permitted.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9