Why Vargas is the new John Lennon

The author (right) with Jose Antonio Vargas

The author (right) with Jose Antonio Vargas at the AALDEF gala

By Rio Guerrero

On the evening of February 19, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) honored Jose Antonio Vargas with a 2013 Justice in Action Award during its annual gala in New York City.

Vargas is the proud face of over 11 million undocumented foreign nationals living in the U.S., and is devoted to this country. He is American in every way — except under existing U.S. immigration law. Vargas is the founder of Define American, a non-profit campaign dedicated to advancing intelligent and pragmatic discourse for U.S. immigration legal reform.

I had the pleasure of attending that gala and discussing with Vargas his journey over the past several years, since he came out of the “immigration closet.” On June 22, 2011, in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article entitled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” Vargas had announced he was an undocumented foreign national by result of overstaying a visa when he was only 12 years old. Since that day, he quickly became a national figure and comprehensive immigration reform advocate. I found his words inspiring and thoughtful. I found him real and inviting.

I joked with him that he is the modern-day John Lennon — who during the 1970s successfully defended a deportation proceeding brought against him and his wife Yoko Ono by the U.S. government due in large part to the tremendous press and public support their case garnered. Vargas is deportable (under current law, technically referred to as “removal”) from the U.S. But as a result of overwhelming popularity and support from millions throughout America, the U.S. government appears reluctant even to issue him a notice to appear for a removal proceeding. Maybe it is concerned that such a proceeding would only result in a public trial of our flawed immigration system. This irony is not lost upon Vargas.

While it was not apparent to him when he initially announced publicly that he was undocumented, he has become aware of the subtle ironies — and even comedy — underlying his situation. In fact, he is reminded of it at least once every day, when someone inevitably asks him either in person, online, or in some other forum: “Why haven’t you been deported yet?” Vargas quipped Tuesday evening to a room of over 700 attorneys and judges, “I haven’t been deported because I’m all lawyer-ed up!” Indeed, Vargas has AALDEF and scores of other lawyers and advocates across the country on speed-dial, in the event any uncomfortable legal situation may arise.
These ironies are woven into the fabric of Vargas’ story. He is a Pulitzer-prize winning writer — just the type of foreign national the U.S. hopes, invites and thankfully welcomes to immigrate to our country. Without question, if Vargas did not face a bar to adjustment to U.S. lawful permanent resident status — arising out of his visa overstay violation approximately two decades ago, he could very easily self-petition for an EB-1 extraordinary ability immigrant visa and secure his U.S. lawful permanent residency.

Vargas also pointed out how odd it was to testify during U.S. congressional hearings regarding comprehensive immigration reform last week, alongside the leaders of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office that is charged with removing him and the other 11 million undocumented. Instead of being handcuffed and hauled to an ICE detention center by these ICE officials, he was shaking their hands. To make it even more surreal, he found himself introducing his ‘lola,’ who was in attendance with him that day on Capitol Hill, to these government officials whom Vargas always understood to fear because they someday might separate him from his grandmother and family in the U.S.

Of course, Vargas in no way trivializes the significance of what he and today’s immigrant movement stand for. He embraces and champions the lofty goal of comprehensive immigration reform that he strives to achieve along with millions of other deserving foreign nationals living in and contributing to America today. He knows very well what is at stake. In fact, he openly admits that his “only fear is not seeing this all the way through.”

In Washington D.C., for the first time in over a decade there is a sea change occurring on the issue of immigration. Bipartisan support is pushing forward the drafting of proposed comprehensive immigration reform legislation in both houses of Congress. Recent reports from Capitol Hill are that a bill may be introduced by as early as March 24th.

On Tuesday evening, Jose Antonio Vargas announced that “diversity is destiny,” and accurately declared “we are all witnessing the creation of a new America.” I agree. It is a beautiful and exciting time to be an American.

Attorney Rio Guerrero is a partner with the immigration law firm Guerrero Yee LLP, representing clients in all 50 United States and in countries throughout the world. He is also a recipient of a 2012 NAPABA “Best Lawyers Under 40” National Award.

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  1. […] On Tuesday evening, Jose Antonio Vargas announced that “diversity is destiny,” and accurately declared “we are all witnessing the creation of a new America.” I agree. It is a beautiful and exciting time to be an American. – The FilAm […]

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