One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab. She handed me a jacket. â€œBaka malamig doonâ€ were among the few words she said. (â€œIt might be cold there.â€) When I arrived at the Philippinesâ€™ Ninoy Aquino International Airport with her, my aunt and a family friend, I was introduced to a man Iâ€™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.Ryan
My mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me thousands of miles away to live with her parents in America â€” 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. I discovered a passion for language, though it was hard to learn the difference between formal English and American slang. One of my early memories is of a freckled kid in middle school asking me, â€œWhatâ€™s up?â€ I replied, â€œThe sky,â€ and he and a couple of other kids laughed. I won the eighth-grade spelling bee by memorizing words I couldnâ€™t properly pronounce. (The winning word was â€œindefatigable.â€)
One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driverâ€™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. â€œThis is fake,â€ she whispered. â€œDonâ€™t come back here again.â€
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. â€œPeke ba ito?â€ I asked in Tagalog. (â€œIs this fake?â€) My grandparents were naturalized American citizens â€” he worked as a security guard, she as a food server â€” and they had begun supporting my mother and me financially when I was 3, after my fatherâ€™s wandering eye and inability to properly provide for us led to my parentsâ€™ 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. â€œDonâ€™t show it to other people,â€ he warned.
I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.
Iâ€™ve tried. Over the past 14 years, Iâ€™ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, Iâ€™ve created a good life. Iâ€™ve lived the American dream.
But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends donâ€™t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.
Last year I read about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act, a nearly decade-old immigration bill that would provide a path to legal permanent residency for young people who have been educated in this country. At the risk of deportation â€” the Obama administration has deported almost 800,000 people in the last two years â€” they are speaking out. Their courage has inspired me.
There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Weâ€™re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesnâ€™t think of me as one of its own.
My first challenge was the language. Though I learned English in the Philippines, I wanted to lose my accent. During high school, I spent hours at a time watching television (especially â€œFrasier,â€ â€œHome Improvementâ€ and reruns of â€œThe Golden Girlsâ€) and movies (from â€œGoodfellasâ€ to â€œAnne of Green Gablesâ€), pausing the VHS to try to copy how various characters enunciated their words. At the local library, I read magazines, books and newspapers â€” anything to learn how to write better. Kathy Dewar, my high-school English teacher, introduced me to journalism. From the moment I wrote my first article for the student paper, I convinced myself that having my name in print â€” writing in English, interviewing Americans â€” validated my presence here.
The debates over â€œillegal aliensâ€ intensified my anxieties. In 1994, only a year after my flight from the Philippines, Gov. Pete Wilson was re-elected in part because of his support for Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from attending public school and accessing other services. (A federal court later found the law unconstitutional.) After my encounter at the D.M.V. in 1997, I grew more aware of anti-immigrant sentiments and stereotypes: they donâ€™t want to assimilate, they are a drain on society. Theyâ€™re not talking about me, I would tell myself. I have something to contribute.
Jose Antonio Vargas is a former reporter for The Washington Post and shared a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. He founded Define American, which seeks to change the conversation on immigration reform. Editor: Chris Suellentrop (C.Suellentrop-MagGroup@nytimes.com)