Brave New Vargas

The suffering economy. Crime levels. Apathy about our country’s seemingly unending involvement in foreign wars. All this bad news only serves to further polarize the political environment in which we can discuss an issue that’s at the heart of our nation: immigration. But immigration is getting hot. Yeah, yeah, you say, it’s like this every few years. But since the 1986 amnesty, no comprehensive immigration reform has been enacted by the U.S. government. However, we have seen the absorption of the Immigration and Naturalization Service into Homeland Security/ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the passing of rather anti-immigrant laws in southern states such as AZ, AL, GA and now SC. An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live in hiding in the U.S., not to mention their citizen family members. It seems that despite the attempts to pass meaningful reform that addresses an increasingly complex immigration situation in the U.S., reactionary xenophobia threatens to overshadow our country’s diverse and worldwide roots.

It’s easy to get cynical in this atmosphere, especially when you’re someone like me whose life has been so profoundly impacted by this simple situation, as described by Jeff Hawkins, in America’s Shameful Moments on June 24th, at

“At times in the past, the U.S. did not restrict the number of immigrants. If you got here and were in good health you were let in. Currently we restrict the number of immigrants each year. We expect people desiring to come to the U.S. will respect these restrictions and wait in line. That hasn’t been the case and we find ourselves with about 10 million adult immigrants living and working in the U.S. who came here illegally.”

And yet, those inspiring moments do come now and then. Hope re-surges in me that Americans are capable of recognizing immigrants’ humanity, be they documented or undocumented. Or of having a rational discussion about our economic dependence on them. The moments come when I see individuals speaking out for their loved ones who are undocumented, as in Tony and Janina’s Wedding. Optimism fills me when I see authorities such as Paul Bridges, Mayor of Uvalda, GA, suing his own state over a new immigration law, challenging what he feels to be ill-fated policy not just for his town but the entire nation. Or when I post to this or my other blog, Succulent Seer, and get responses from equally inspired individuals.

Perhaps the person who inspired me the most recently was Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who came out as an undocumented immigrant in My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant in the New York Times magazine on June 22nd. Although I won’t summarize the article here, and his situation is different than my husband’s (he was sent to the U.S. as a child, and then chose to continue the life for about 14 years once he found out he was here illegally), there is a certain kinship in that there finally came a time when Vargas realized he couldn’t maintain a secret life anymore. For us, this moment came when we decided that all legal options were impossible, and we would have to move to Mexico to stay together. Knowing the risks which Vargas is putting himself at by outing himself, is inspiring in itself. Seeing that a publication likes the Times was willing to run his article, and that Rachel Maddow brought him on her show in a sympathetic manner is similarly heartening.

However, observing the knee-jerk reactions by some of his “fellow” journalists was offensive. One even went to so far as to say Vargas has disqualified himself as a journalist by being straightforward about his status, as quoted in The Media Deportation of Jose Antonio Vargas, by Daniel Denvir. So is that to say that any individual who’s ever formerly engaged in any illegal activity, such as adultery, drug abuse, traffic violations (pick your poison) disqualifies themselves from their profession? The argument about Vargas being a habitual liar just doesn’t hold up. Most everyone has some dirty laundry in their closet they’re not quite ready to hang out. Come on guys, I’d expect more objectivity when you’re bashing subjectivity.

This is when I can feel the heat of the debate all the way down here in sunny Mexico. Comments like these, although I try hard to ignore the chaff, are strong enough to pull me out of my writing of our book to talk about what’s going on. It concerns me that people are willing to get so high up on their holier than thou horses that they can’t see the forests for the trees. It affects how I write my story. I get nervous about how people are going to react to me telling a story, how it could be construed that I was harboring my husband, no matter how much the immigration lawyer we’re working with assures me that that’s unlikely. Ultimately, I worry that we have strayed so far from our own humanity that we don’t recognize that of others.

But then I think of the brave ones. Like my husband himself, who said, “I never hid who I was.” It’s true, he didn’t, and he also had a lot to lose by voluntarily deporting (as did I, by accompanying him). However, he didn’t have the same exposure as Jose Vargas, who’s essentially making himself a high-profile guinea pig of the new ICE mandate that “law enforcement resources should be aimed at those who would do the country harm, people who threaten national security, violent offenders, and drug dealers,” as described on the American Immigration Lawyer Association (AILA) blog. Vargas said, “We have not had a credible conversation about immigration in this country.” How can we, when everyone is too afraid to see the truth, much less speak it? It’s a big risk he’s taking to speak the truth of his own life, a risk that people with pre-conceived notions about undocumented immigrants won’t sufficiently appreciate, but one that *will* inspire a lot of people, including me. I think I speak for millions when I say thanks, Jose, for sticking your neck out.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – 13th century

Tony and Janina’s American Wedding, a Boise screening

“Tony & Janina’s American Wedding” Trailer from Ruth Leitman on Vimeo.

The Exploring Amor and Exile Last Thursday Series, in partnership with Boise City Arts and History Dept. Artists in Residence Program at 8th Street Marketplace, will present Ruth Leitman’s award-winning immigration documentary Tony & Janina’s American Wedding this week.

Film Premier Details
What: Tony & Janina’s American Wedding
When: 7-9 p.m., Thursday June 30, 2011
Where: The Cole/Marr Photography Workshops, 8th Street Marketplace, Lower Level, 404 S. 8th St, Boise, Idaho
Suggested donations of $7 – $10 will benefit the filmmakers as they take the film across the country and fight to reunite Tony and Janina. Or support the film on its IndieGoGo page.

Tony & Janina’s American Wedding is a feature length documentary that gets to the heart of the broken, red-tape ridden U.S. immigration system. After 18 years in America, Tony and Janina Wasilewski’s family is torn apart when Janina is deported back to Poland, taking their six-year-old son Brian with her. Set on the backdrop of the Chicago political scene, and featuring Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez at the heart of the immigration reform movement, this film follows the Wasilewski’s three-year struggle to be reunited, as their Senator, Barack Obama, rises to the Presidency. With a fresh perspective on the immigration conversation, this film tells the untold, post-9/11 human rights story that every undocumented immigrant in America faces today, with the power to open the conversation for change.

Read an interview with Leitman and Tony Wasilewski at the Baltimore City Paper and a profile in the Chicago Tribune.