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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Technology, especially social media, has played a big role. Online, people are telling their stories and coming out, asking others to consider life from their perspective and testing everyone's empathy quotient. Some realize the risks of being so public; others, like me, think publicity offers protection. Most see the value of connecting with others and sharing experiences — by liking the page of United We Dream on Facebook, for example, or watching the Undocumented and Awkward video series on YouTube.

This movement has its roots in the massive immigrant-rights rallies of 2006, which were held in protest of HR 4437, a Republican-backed House bill that would have classified undocumented immigrants and anyone who helped them enter and remain in the U.S. as felons. Though the bill died, it awakened activism in this young generation. Through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, I encountered youths who were bravely facing their truths.

"For many people, coming out is a way of saying you're not alone," says Gaby Pacheco of United We Dream. Her parents came from Ecuador and brought her to the U.S. in 1993, when she was 7. Immigration officials raided her home in 2006, and her family has been fighting deportation since. Now 27, she has three education degrees and wants to be a special-education teacher. But her life remains on hold while she watches documented friends land jobs and plan their futures. Says Pacheco: "In our movement, you come out for yourself, and you come out for other people."

The movement, as its young members call it, does not have a single leader. News travels by tweet and Facebook update, as it did when we heard that Joaquin Luna, an undocumented 18-year-old from Texas, killed himself the night after Thanksgiving and, though this is unproved, we instantly connected his death to the stresses of living as a Dreamer. Some Dreamers, contemplating coming out, ask me whether they should pretend to be legal to get by. "Should I just do what you did? You know, check the citizenship box [on a government form] and try to get the job?" a few have asked me. Often I don't know how to respond. I'd like to tell them to be open and honest, but I know I owe my career to my silence for all those years. Sometimes all I can manage to say is "You have to say yes to yourself when the world says no."

'What next?'

is the question I ask myself now. It's a question that haunts every undocumented person in the U.S. The problem is, immigration has become a third-rail issue in Washington, D.C. — more controversial even than health care because it deals with issues of race and class, of entitlement and privilege, that America has struggled with since its founding. As much as we talk about the problem, we rarely focus on coming up with an actual solution — an equitable process to fix the system.

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