Review: Dear America

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Review for "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen" by Jose Antonio Vargas (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a great book. It is about life as an immigrant, but it is not about politics. Through his connection to journalism, Vargas wrote an op-ed in 2011 outing himself as undocumented. He also wrote a Time magazine cover story on the subject in 2012.

“Dear America” is mostly a story about the author, Jose Antonio Vargas, whose mother hastily put him on a plane from the Philippines to join his grandparents in America at 12 years old. He grows up in California and does not realize until he attempts to apply for a driver’s license that the paperwork provided by his grandfather was fake. He confides in several trusted colleagues and administrators, who eventually get him to college and into several prestigious journalism gigs, despite his undocumented status.

Vargas explores how the “path” to citizenship does not exist for him and many, many other people. He cannot simply apply for legal citizenship, because he came here illegally and risks deportation. Leaving the U.S. and returning to the Philippines effectively bans him from coming back for 10 years, and even then, approval for U.S. citizenship is not guaranteed. He could attempt to pull off a sham marriage (i.e., marrying a U.S. citizen for a green card), but Vargas refuses to do this because he is gay. As a result, he discusses a sense of constant homelessness even though he considers America his country. Many aspects of American life are continually out of reach for him because he is undocumented. Though he pays taxes through his job, in many states, he cannot drive or legally work. He cannot travel overseas and has been effectively cut off from his extended family. He also faces constant fear of detainment and deportation, which he goes through later on in the book.

Overall, this is a short book that puts a human face on the argument around illegal immigration, which is far more complex than building walls and talk about caravans. What does it mean to be an American? If it is simply a matter of being born on U.S. soil, then I, as a ‘natural’ resident, did not “do” anything to earn my status. Why do we as citizens feel the need to make people like the author do the same? Lots of complex arguments here, many of which have no quick answers.

Definitely recommend this book.

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