Coming Out as an Illegal Immigrant

Today, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas revealed that he is in the country illegally in a New York Times piece. What makes the piece so incredible is that it's largely one-of-a-kind, and not because there aren't an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, many of whom surely have experiences similar to that of Vargas, but because these stories rarely reach a broad audience. From Vargas's piece:

I’ve also talked to family and friends about my situation and am working with legal counsel to review my options. I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story.

Fighting for immigration reform – including the DREAM Act which Vargas is now advocating for – can be a catch-22 situation: personal narratives are a really powerful tool in swaying public opinion, but few people share their stories for fear of reprisal. It's entirely unfair to ask immigrants to reveal their status and risk destroying their lives to prove a political point. Pro-abortion-rights activists share this problem: more than one-third of American women will have an abortion by age 45, meaning most people know someone who has had an abortion, though they may not know it. The issue would be treated differently if more people knew these women's stories. But many women who tell their abortion story may also ruin their lives for doing so. Harvey Milk (who makes an appearance in Vargas's narrative) encouraged LGBT individuals to come out in order to defeat the homophobic Proposition 6 in California; to humanize the issue and make voters aware that gay men and women were among their family, friends, and neighbors. But it's not really fair to ask everyone to come out in these ways and risk retribution from family, friends, or society.

That Vargas's story, told in such detail, will reach so many people is really important for demonstrating the pain caused by our immigration system in a way face-less statistics cannot. It's too bad that making the human cost of our flawed immigration system public in this way carries such risk.

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