Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How Do We Solve a Problem Like Vargas?

It won't go away.

The debate over illegal immigration.

This past Sunday, Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an illegal immigrant in a compelling autobiographical article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine.

Coming to America

Here's his basic story, in his own words:

"One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab... When I arrived at the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport with her, my aunt and a family friend, I was introduced to a man I’d never seen. They told me he was my uncle. He held my hand as I boarded an airplane for the first time. It was 1993, and I was 12.

"My mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me thousands of miles away to live with her parents in America — my grandfather (Lolo in Tagalog) and grandmother (Lola). After I arrived in Mountain View, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay Area, I entered sixth grade and quickly grew to love my new home, family and culture...

"One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. 'This is fake,' she whispered. 'Don’t come back here again.'

"Confused and scared, I pedaled home and confronted Lolo. I remember him sitting in the garage, cutting coupons. I dropped my bike and ran over to him, showing him the green card. 'Peke ba ito?' I asked in Tagalog. ('Is this fake?') My grandparents were naturalized American citizens — he worked as a security guard, she as a food server — and they had begun supporting my mother and me financially when I was 3, after my father’s wandering eye and inability to properly provide for us led to my parents’ separation. Lolo was a proud man, and I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me. 'Don’t show it to other people,' he warned."

Vargas' grandfather had initially tried to get his son, daughter, and grandson into the United States legally by petitioning the government on their behalf as family members.  But he dropped the case when he suspected that while researching his petition, the government would find out that his daughter, Vargas' mother, was married, which was against the rules.

So Vargas' family paid a coyote, or a human smuggler, to get him here using forged documentation.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  History that probably gets written all the time these days.  We just rarely get such a poignant first-person account of the deed.

Anatomy of a Crime

And yes, while it is an emotional story, it was still a dirty deed.  On several levels.

First, we have the failure of a father in the Philippines to provide for his family and remain faithful to his wife.  It's incredibly likely that had Vargas' father been an honorable man, no immigration fraud would have been committed here at all.

Second, we have a mother willing to send her son out of the country for "a better life." What does that mean, exactly?  She's given birth to two more children who live with her in the Philippines, but are they starving or politically oppressed?  While the Philippines isn't exactly a First World country, it's not Sudan, either.

Third, we have grandparents legally residing in the United States who were willing to break the law so their grandson could grow up here instead of the Philippines.  Did they think the culture they enjoy here, and from which they draw benefits, survives on ambivalence towards sovereign laws?  Vargas describes how his grandfather would run off copies of his forged paperwork at Kinko's like they were party invitations.  Did they see the United States as being big enough to absorb their own private shenanigans?

None of this early deception was Vargas' fault. And it's to his credit that the agony over his deceit finally pushed him to confess. He's facing the real possibility of deportation, and perhaps having to adjust to a country and culture with which he's barely familiar.

He's also walked away from a promising career in journalism, but then, his grandparents didn't want him to aspire to much anyway. They knew Vargas wouldn't be able to sustain the lie if he pursued higher education, worked at prestigious media companies, and won global awards like the Pulitzer. Had he stuck to menial labor and blended into the landscape, he could have made an adequate life for himself and his wife - hopefully an American. At least, if Vargas hadn't also determined he is gay, a revelation which shot the whole marriage thing out of the water, much to his grandfather's frustration.

Love and Equity in the Balance

Does any of this sound fair?

Of course it doesn't. There's usually nothing fair about illegal immigration. Multiply Vargas' story by all the untold numbers of kids brought here illegally by their illegal parents, and you don't know whether to be furious or anguished.

But at what point are we going to decide whether illegal immigration is really a crime? I've been carrying on an e-mail conversation with a good friend who supports a traditionally Christian view of liberal absolution in these cases, much like Baptist theologian Russell Moore advocates.  On the one hand, I feel guilty for sounding like a ruthless ogre by taking a hard line against illegal immigrants.  But I also feel angry for feeling guilty - not angry at my friend, but angry at the illegals whose selfishness makes me wonder if my stance is one of selfishness as well.  But is it?  Why should I feel sorry for Vargas, when all sorts of crimes are committed every day which send their perpetrators to prison?  Does love truly overrule law in cases like this?  Should Christians, even more than anybody else, expect our government to exercise extraordinary compassion and grace over this particular crime?

To me, that sounds like amnesty.  Am I wrong?  And if Christians take the amnesty route with illegal immigration, with what other laws should we let love overrule?

And does love always overrule law anyway?  What about when parents teach morals to their kids?  When I was a toddler, I petulantly stole a toy car from some family friends we were visiting who lived half an hour away.  When we got home, my mother saw me playing with that car, and she asked me where I'd gotten it.  After learning that I had acquired the toy without the owner's permission, she put me back in her van and drove for an hour round-trip to return the car and apologize.  What would have happened if she had "let love overrule law" in this instance?

Getting Real About Immigration Laws

I guess I simply don't understand what's unBiblical about resolving the debate over illegal immigration by enforcing immigration laws.  Otherwise, don't we risk letting our country hemorrhage money and default into poverty by letting anybody who can get here avail themselves of our publicly-funded subsidies like education and healthcare?  I understand that "to whom much is given, much is required," but aren't we also supposed to be prudent with money?  Don't we have immigration laws and quotas to help manage our economy in a responsible way so we can efficiently plan for what we need and develop our social infrastructure so we can remain a vibrant country?  How can we maintain the high profitability of our economy - that makes America an attractive destination for illegal immigrants in the first place - if we can't safeguard our country's fundamental residency parameters?

Let me be clear:  I have never supported, nor can I ever imagine myself supporting, a cessation of legal immigration to the United States.  I've said it before and I'll say it again:  our country needs to offer compassionate respite to people suffering persecution around the world.  We need to welcome new people to our country who will enrich our society and, reciprocally, broaden America's global social, economic, and political opportunities.  America is a nation of immigrants, and immigration has helped to make America Earth's lone superpower.

Yet even as the Statue of Liberty lifts her lamp "beside the golden doors," it would be unrealistic and irresponsible of us to tear down the drawbridge, fill the moat with concrete, and let some sort of sociopolitical migrational osmosis determine the future of our country.  Even Christ's Kingdom doesn't welcome just anybody.  Heaven isn't a come-and-go reception for a celestial bride and Groom.  National borders serve a purpose, and how is it loving to decide that purpose is irrelevant in the face of grievous human stories crafted in the pages of fraudulent immigration documents?

In This Case

Which brings us back to Jose Antonio Vargas, whose predicament has been affixed to our sordid illegal immigration narrative in real time.

If I were deciding his case, what would I do?

Since his grandfather, the mastermind of this scheme that's landed Vargas in such hot water, has passed away, and it's pointless to prosecute his aged grandmother, who likely had little part in it, there's nobody in his family here in the States to take the blame.

Since Vargas hadn't a clue about his immigration status until he became a teenager, and even then was only 16 and still not a legal adult, I wonder if the courts have any leeway in his case? Perhaps some probation equivalent to the time between when he was 16 until this year would suffice, which according to Vargas' testimonial is about twenty years?

Since the Philippines has high-speed wireless Internet and virtually all of the technology we enjoy here in the United States, would it be that punitive to his career if he were repatriated to his home country?  He could still work for a major international media company like the Washington Post or Huffington Post, just with a Manila office instead of a stateside one.  At least until he is able to procure proper authorization to live and work in the United States.  Or even become a legal citizen.

Fortunately for Vargas, he has options that shouldn't irreparably penalize his career or even his lifestyle. Even trickier solutions will be needed for the untold numbers of kids whose parents have brought them into the United States illegally, and who possess far fewer opportunities. Indeed, for these kids, whose plight only further burdens the dilemma of illegal immigration, the question of how seriously America will treat the crime their parents have committed needs to be answered sooner rather than later.

Wouldn't that be a form of compassion? Not to say that we don't love the people whose lives have been wrenched into a legal vacuum because America needs to protect our sovereignty.

But that, when we're forced, we discipline those we love?

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