Jose Antonio Vargas, Gaza and the New Checkpoint Children

Two major global news events — apprehensions of child migrants on the Texas-Mexico border and the latest flare up of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — converged for me this week in a prescient piece by by journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas in Politico. Vargas is the undocumented reporter whom we’ve written about here (and who, full disclosure, blurbed Amor and Exile).

He wrote an essay about being “Trapped on the Border,” presaging his detention at the McAllen, Texas airport four days later. In the piece, Vargas quotes an immigration attorney friend who messaged him, asking, “I am so glad you are visiting the kids near the border. But how will you get through the checkpoint on your way back?”

Jose Antonio Vargas defines American.
Jose Antonio Vargas defines American.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Israel, another land of checkpoints, was preparing a ground invasion against the people of Gaza.

These two stories, and their portrayal in the media, share a number of critical themes. Vargas’ rude introduction to immigration checkpoints in the American South, reminded me of the long-standing Israeli use of checkpoints to control, humiliate and persecute Arabs. The checkpoint is a blatant symbol of Israeli occupation, just as it was of South African apartheid. And as it’s become along our southern border.

The checkpoint presupposes the ID card, which allows governments to place people into winner and loser categories: Israeli/Palestinian, black/Indian/coloured, documented/undocumented, immigrant/native.

The checkpoint puts law enforcement, or soldiers, or national guard into the position of suspecting everyone; their job, by definition, is to impede human progress, not to promote progress.

The checkpoint is a militaristic metaphor that has no place in a participatory democracy like Texas.

The checkpoint breeds fear, as Nicole dramatically describes in her passage in Amor and Exile on crossing into Mexico.

The checkpoint dissolves essential freedoms, like the freedom of movement, the right to presumed innocence, protections against search and seizure.

A line from the Jasiri X video below sums up the ethic of the checkpoint: “criminalized without a cause at the checkpoint.” (Note the apparent handcuffs on Vargas in the photo above.)

This gets close to the issue here, and the larger notion of our broken immigration system. We are so far from the ideals of the 1965 revisions to the Immigration and Nationality Act that we no longer have any moral bearings on the meaning of immigration in the United States.

Vargas continues to ask us to Define American. In lobbying for abolishing the discriminatory quota system that the 1952 INA had cemented into law, then-President John F. Kennedy told members of the Italian-American community in 1963 that immigration to the U.S. was both a family affair and a way of building a nation:

We hope the Congress of the United States will accept these recommendations and that before this year is over we will have what we have needed for a good many years, which is the recognition that all people can make equally good citizens, and that what this country needs and wants are those who wish to come here to build their families here and contribute to the life of our country. — via The American Presidency Project

Vargas visited with child migrants at the border, kids who had come to the U.S. alone, like he did, in search of family and better fortunes.  “I don’t think you can look in the eyes of these children and not know the kind of hell they’ve been through,” Vargas told The Guardian. “I don’t think you can look at them in the eye and tell them they have to go back to where they came from.”

The volunteer in the short video below, posted by Vargas’ organization, Define American, defines American:

The Border Patrol held Vargas for most of the day on Tuesday and released him, as a low-priority detainee, according to the New York Times, with a notice to appear before an immigration judge.

Amor and Exile argues that at least, at least, the American public (and elected officials) should see the plight of U.S. citizens like Nicole, who are forced into exile because of the arbitrary immigration status of their spouses, as a starting point for reforming the system. But apparently, we can’t even see the plight of children — small children fleeing gang violence and poverty as a starting point for compassion. Instead, our model policy for these children, for leaders like Vargas, for our historically fluid international border is the command and control model of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, barriers and walls, militarization, suspicion and ethnocentrism and classism.

This is not the America (nor the Israel, for that matter) that I know. Our best hope is to take Vargas up on his call and really do the hard work of defining American, because I’m not sure I recognize her anymore.

Amor and Exile Year-In-Review 2013

An Amor and Exile Year-In-Review, 2013 timeline

2013 was a big year for Amor and Exile and for the pro-immigration movement. Brush up on the issues of the past year with this Amor and Exile Year-In-Review for 2013.


Obama administration announces stateside waiver processing, creates relief for some families (Take Two, Southern California Public Radio)


Action for Family Unity collage of photos of families separated or in exile due to immigration law
Action for Family Unity collage of photos of families separated or in exile due to immigration law





  • “Send Amor and Exile to Washington” campaign raises over $12,000 and delivers a copy to every member of Congress, the nine Supreme Court justices, President and First Lady Obama and Vice-President Biden and other D.C. officials
  • A&E featured on the News and Politics section of BlogHer (
  • Nicole and Nathaniel launch A&E on the East Coast with the first public readings at AILA D.C. headquarters and Ukazoo Books in Baltimore, MD
  • Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) calls for relief for exiled/separated families with colleague letter supporting Amor and Exile (
  • Nathaniel launches A&E in Boise at Hyde Park Books, with Nicole skyping in from Querétaro (
  • SB 744 passed in the Senate (New York Times)
  • A&E discussed in “All About Family” (Baltimore Jewish Times)
  • Nathaniel’s work as Idaho journalist and A&E highlighted (Idaho Press-Tribune)
June collage
Clockwise from bottom L: Constituent letters to Congressional reps; Nicole and Nate meet with Rep. Luis Gutierrez; Nicole and Nate after hand-delivering over 100 copies of A&E; Nicole on Capitol Hill; Nicole at Ukazoo reading in Baltimore; Nicole, cover designer Gilad Foss and Nate in Baltimore; Nate and Margi Hoffman mailing books to D.C. officials; and the audience at the A&E launch at Hyde Park Books in Boise, ID.


  • Nicole launches A&E in Mexico with Nathaniel skyping in, starting in Querétaro at the Casa del Atrio (
  • A&E and Nicole’s story covered in Boulder, Colorado (Boulder Weekly)
  • Nathaniel hosts reading at the American Friends Service Committee in Denver with a call-in by Nicole
Top: Nicole at La Casa del Atrio reading, Querétaro, México; Nicole and friends of A&E at the Querétaro reading
Top: Nicole at La Casa del Atrio reading, Querétaro, México. Bottom: Nicole and friends of A&E at the Querétaro reading


  • Reading in San Miguel de Allende, home of J.W. Lown, profiled in A&E
  • Edgar Falcon marries on the border in highly publicized wedding on the El Paso/Mexico border (Texas Tribune)
August collage
Clockwise from top: San Miguel de Allende reading, Nicole with supporter at SMA reading, U.S. citizen Edgar Falcon marries Mexican citizen Maricruz Valtierra at U.S./Mexico border in August.



  • HR 15, a comprehensive immigration reform bill largely based on SB 744, is introduced in the House of Representatives (
  • Nathaniel shares A&E at the International Institute of the Bay Area on October 24th
  • A&E and Nicole and Margo’s story featured on PRI The World (PRI The World)
  • Rift surfacing between some immigration reform activist groups (
  • House Reps Pearce (R-NM) and O’Rourke (D-TX) sponsor the American Families United Act (AFU website)
Amor and Exile in October 2013
Nathaniel signs copies of Amor and Exile at reading at the International Institute of the Bay Area in October.


  • Nicole and Margo’s story featured alongside series of profiles of SF Bay Area immigration activists (SF Bay Guardian)
  • Town-hall discussion of A&E and immigration issues at Rediscovered Books in Boise and Baltimore event co-hosted by Chizuk Amuno and Beth-El congregations (
  • Illegal Immigration and Marriage,” discussion of A&E with Nathaniel and Nicole on “Midday with Dan Rodricks” (
  • Pre-Thanksgiving Reading of A&E in (Nicole’s hometown of Syracuse, NY (Post-Standard |
Amor and Exile in November 2013
Clockwise from upper L: Nate on the air with Nicole on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show; Nicole skyping in from Mexico with Deyanira and Ben at Rediscovered Books reading; the audience at the RD Books reading in Boise; the audience at the reading at the Jefferson Clinton Hotel in Syracuse, NY; Nicole and her grandmother, Thelma Kinney, at the Syracuse reading, the day before Thanksgiving.


  • Immigration reform officially “dead” for 2013 (Hispanic News Network)
  • Fight for comprehensive immigration reform shaping up for 2014 (Grand Island Independent)
  • A&E available on Kindle in the Amazon Prime Lending Library
  • A&E has sold over 1,000 copies and hosted 14 public readings in the U.S. and Mexico in its first six months.
  • Giveaway days planned in January to coincide with the start of the Congressional session, to help elevate the debate on immigration reform—stay tuned!

On reporting and identity

A few weeks ago, I sat in the basement studio of Boise’s brand new community radio station discussing #OccupyBoise with eight or nine people who were fired up to cover the movement in some way. The radio station has only been on the air for about six months and we don’t have a local news segment established yet, but two talented and creative volunteer DJs who host mostly music shows wanted to report on the surprisingly robust Boise wing of #Occupy. Part of our discussion was whether or not the guys had been “too involved” in the organizing of the marches and general assemblies in Boise to credibly report on the phenomenon.

I am very reticent to judge who is credible to report on anything these days, as I think journalism ought to be—and is—judged more for the character of its content than for its pedigree. Also, I am just a volunteer at Radio Boise as well, bringing my decade of experience in the mainstream and alternative media to the table to help establish a news department at the station. Furthermore, community radio was doing consensus and direct democracy work before hash tags were even invented, so I was not about to make any decrees about who can report on what. But I did suggest that anyone who wanted to report on #Occupy Boise ought to be very clear on their involvement in it—both to themselves and to the public.

Jose Antonio Vargas defines American

Jose Antonio Vargas, the undocumented reporter who is reporting on immigration through his own new organization, Define American, has done just that, and he comes off as extremely credible. Vargas, borrowing from journalism prof Jay Rosen, calls this style of journalism “The View from Somewhere“—the idea that our experiences and biases and power of ideas make our journalism more interesting and useful. But Vargas, while clearly advocating for justice in his own case and in the case of millions of immigrants stuck in what a large majority of Americans believe is a “broken” system (in whatever way they feel it may be broken), has made the clear distinction that he is a reporter first. He is taking on the role of investigator, critic, chronicler and working in the realm of ideas first and foremost. It is a great feeling of liberation—a graduation of sorts—to move from the he said/she said, transcriptionary, third person, “fair and balanced” approach that young reporters are still taught at newspapers across the country to realizing that the reporter has thoughts and feelings and a mind as well and that his or her thoughts and feelings matter.

I worked as an immigration reporter in the mainstream system for about six years, first at the Idaho Press-Tribune, a small town paper in Idaho’s second largest city, just west of Boise. It was my first real job and the place that I learned how to be a newspaper reporter. And I quickly realized, perhaps because I had moved to Idaho from the East Coast, that there was a large population of Latinos who were excluded from the community in many ways, including in the pages of the newspaper. So I created my own beat: the Latino beat and started writing about farmworker labor issues, offering farmworker perspectives, publishing short A&E (Arts and Entertainment) pieces in Spanish and English on cultural events and music in the Latino community and looking into bilingual education in the schools.

But my first inkling that I was not going to make it as a straight up newspaper reporter came when I witnessed an act of blatant racism at a city event before the annual rodeo—the biggest show in town. The story was supposed to be something like “City Council Excited for 75th Annual Rodeo” or something like that. But I returned to the newsroom with a much better story: “City Councilman Pans Black Rodeo Clown with Fried Chicken and Watermelon Jokes.” The newsroom was not equipped for such a story questioning the town’s most sacred traditions. There was literally no newspaper mechanism to get that information on the front page the next day—I, the reporter, was the only witness who was talking. But to their credit, my editors let me write an op-ed about the experience for the weekend paper, after the rodeo was over, if I recall, and it generated record numbers of letters to the editor, some urging me to go back to where I came from and others thanking me for pointing out the overt yet unspoken racism in the community.

That’s just one example of how the view from somewhere ought to work; the op-ed, or whatever we called it, should have run on the front page the next day.

In Vargas’ call to action for reporters to take a new line on immigration, he refers to the nefarious role that FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies have played in media coverage of immigration for the last decade or more. The groups, part of the Tanton Network, espouse what I consider to be an anti-immigrant or racist position but masquerade as think tanks or mainstream policy groups and get quoted all the time.

Vargas cites a Republican source:

FAIR, CIS and Numbers USA have “played an outsized role in speaking for conservatives. They’ve had an outsized role in this debate. They’ve framed the debate in their terms and that’s been really unfortunate,” Robert Gittelson, a Republican businessman, told me.

I have quoted them and I knew at the time that it was an intellectually dishonest thing to do, but my editors wanted to know what the antis had to say so I had to make the call. In 2005, I wrote a story for the Contra Costa Times, where I was the Immigration and Demographics reporter, about a woman whose husband was undocumented and had gotten stuck in Mexico after tending to his sick mother. It was a great story and one of the early inspirations for Amor and Exile. But I was forced to add these two lines to the story:

But for advocates of stricter immigration enforcement, having a family is no excuse for breaking the law.

“The illegals need to either get on the path to get their citizenship squared away, or they shouldn’t be here in the first place,” said Rick Oltman, western field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In those two sentences, my only chance to frame Oltman’s comments were in my definition of his camp: strict enforcement. At least the tone of Oltman’s comment speaks for itself and he is not the focus of the story in any way. Vargas generously refers to the Tanton network groups as the “anti-immigration reform community.”

Despite my discomfort with these mainstream journalistic habits of framing stories in terms of conflict and stripping the pyramid of any personality, they are difficult habits to unlearn. It’s taken me several years as a freelancer and at an alternative weekly to come out of my shell and it’s still hard for me to write lengthy, self-referential blog posts like this one. But I’ll give one more example of how it can be done before getting back to #Occupy.

I went into coverage of the Tea Party phenomenon in 2009 with the same (kind of boring) questions that are being asked of #Occupy today: What’s this all about? And I wrote about it with some degree of personality (snark) at first and then with an all-out opinion formed from spending the time talking to people at many Tea Party rallies in Boise in this post entitled Tea Party Inspired by Racial Fears. My point is that I was neither for nor against the Tea Party or the Tea Partiers. I was acting and writing as an informed observer, staking out an informed position and offering readers a viewpoint that they could make use of. Many of my friends showed up to protest the protestors, but my form of activism has almost always been through the media. I suspect that is the way Jose Antonio Vargas views his activism—an informed observer with a lot to say about immigration in the United States. Though his coverage may well serve to rally the public—as good journalism should—it is journalism first, not preaching or protest.

So my advice to my friends at Radio Boise was this: you can have opinions and stances on #OccupyBoise and present them as news reporting if they are well developed and fair. You can let the marchers and occupiers speak for themselves on the air and call it news reporting. You can do any number of creative audio reports from the rallies and marches and call it news reporting. But you can’t claim to be part of #OccupyBoise and still call it news reporting (even if the movement is leaderless and tries to embrace “99 percent” of America), because that’s called public relations or propaganda and it’s not fair to news consumers and it’s boring.

It remains to be seen if we will break in the news department at Radio Boise with a story on #Occupy, but one thing we all learned is that despite the democratization of the media through the internet, journalism is still hard in two ways: it’s a daily applied ethics debate and it’s damn hard work.

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