“We aren’t always who you think we are” – Thoughts on Jose Antonio Vargas and the Immigration Debate

July 01, 2011

By Ursula Oaks

When I first heard about Jose Antonio Vargas’ campaign, Define American, the phrase was like a punch in the gut. Unlike Vargas, I’m not an illegal immigrant, and nothing about my appearance makes people wonder where I came from. But I am an immigrant, and like him and countless others, I have spent my life striving to live the definition of “being an American” that he articulates: hard work, a sense of deep pride in being here, and a desire to contribute.

My family moved to the United States when I was five years old, having defected from Hungary because of my parents’ disagreement with the communist regime there. Growing up in a small Texas town, we definitely stood out, with our funny name – Garay – our accents and, well, just for being “different.” As political refugees, we did have a path to citizenship, and we took it, but I consider this great fortune of mine to be simply an accident of birth – I’ve always understood that I could have just as easily been someone like Mr. Vargas. After all, the immigrant story in America is as deep and wide as the oceans people have crossed, for generations, to get here.

For me the sorrow of the immigration debate in our country today is in the knee-jerk impulse to define ourselves into a certain group -  and thus, out of some other. But who is in and who is out? For most of my adult life, my immigrant identity has been somewhat hidden. I took on my American husband’s name, easy on the ears and easy to spell. I’m white and have no accent. I’ve often had the experience of hearing friends and acquaintances talk about the “immigrant problem,” only to see them completely taken off guard when I remind them that hey, I too, am an immigrant. They smile and say “well, you’re different.” But why? Because they know me, and we are friends? This is what is so disarming about Vargas’ “coming out” as an illegal immigrant: it pokes holes in the toxic narrative about who illegal immigrants are, forcing us to confront our biases and assumptions. Once you see the humanity in someone, once you realize that they just want the same things you do – to work hard, to contribute, and to live in peace – it’s much harder to define them as an outsider.

How far will the quest to identify “the other” go before we say enough? I’m reminded of the famous statement of the German pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Vargas writes of illegal immigrants: “We’re not always who you think we are.” So it is with those of us who chanced to accumulate the right papers, who aren’t forced to live in the shadows, but who do feel the sting of anti-immigrant fear. For that is what it is, of course: in embracing “the other,” we may fear losing ourselves, our rights, our identity. But to think this way is to turn away from the very heart of the American miracle:  that our country is dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal and have certain inalienable rights, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is this foundational value that makes us strong, renews our promise, and moves us forward. I’m proud to work, alongside my NAFSA colleagues and NAFSA members, to advance our conviction that we must keep striving, in America, for an immigration policy that is just, humane, and advances this country’s promise in the global community.


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