“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
I always mean to carry an awareness of my privilege with me, but a lecture by Jose Antonio Vargas last Thursday night at Carleton put me firmly in my place. I hadn’t really been succeeding in putting myself in others’ shoes with respect to undocumented immigrants--I suppose in some cases it’s just not possible unless the hurt person brings his shoes right to you to make his story and emotions truly real to an outsider.
Vargas, a Pultizer-prize winning journalist, an incredible storyteller, and the founder of Define American, is an undocumented immigrant who identifies as an American. And after spending two hours with him, I don’t see how a reasonable human being could doubt that identification. Why? He pays taxes, more than pulls his weight in society, and loves America. I could go on, but please hear Vargas's story in his own words--in his original NY Times magazine coming-out article or his more recent TIME Magazine cover story, or in this video.
Shamefully enough, before Thursday night, the only reason I was applying for U.S. citizenship was so that I could keep my Carleton National Merit Scholarship (one of the stipulations of the scholarship being that I had to apply for naturalization as soon as possible after I turned 18 in October). It was a mere formality, one that I even complained about. The hardest part of the process? Hard to say--it’s a close call between having to dig up and through my old passports to figure out the dates I’d traveled out of the country, having to walk a few miles through St. Paul (from the nearest Northfield Lines bus stop) to get to the Application Support Center, or giving up $680's worth of summer earnings to the USCIS. I was born in Japan (and am currently a citizen of Japan), moved to Hawaii in 1997, and have had a green card since 2000. I never asked my parents how they got it or how they landed green card-qualifying jobs in Hawaii, and I never wondered what my life would be like without it. My green card was just another piece of plastic that stayed with my passport, and it wasn't even green.
How can applying for citizenship for me--someone who honestly had no particular passion about "becoming American"--be a mere question of taking a few hours over Winter Break to fill out the N-400 form, while Vargas has had to live a lie for 12 years, estranged from his closest family members in the Philippines, professionally successful but limited, still undocumented after all he has contributed to American society? Why does Moldova (population 3.5 million) have the same green card quota of 25,000/year as Mexico (population 112 million)? The system is broken, that's why, and it can't be fixed without some unless American citizens are willing to ask some hard questions and have some uncomfortable conversations.
Jose Antonio Vargas's presence galvanized campus and raised many questions tonight. Even at Carleton, where people are incredibly caring and open-minded, enrollment in African-American Studies courses is dominated by students of color; in the same way, Latin American Student Organization events seem to be dominated by students of Latin American descent. We can't help what we're interested in, some people say. Vargas says we must meet each other halfway to be proper allies--there's no way, for example, to understand American history without understanding African-American history. Students mean to care about breaking barriers of culture, but there’s also sometimes a tendency to prioritize schoolwork over extracurricular activities outside of one's normal comfort zone. The Carleton administration has taken a small step in the right direction by allowing undocumented students to apply for admission as international students. Minnesota itself is a good place to be--it's currently poised to become the 5th state to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and the 13th state to offer in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants, but there's much more to be done.
If you ever get the chance to hear Vargas speak, jump at it. Nothing can make you appreciate what it means to be American more than Vargas’s story, even if (or rather because) he calls himself a walking uncomfortable conversation. I am incredibly thankful to the Office of Intercultural and International Life for sponsoring and organizing this lecture--one of the blindingly enlightening experiences among the other shining points that have characterized my time here.