On Friday, when President Barack Obama and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the administration will protect as many as 1.4 million young undocumented immigrants from deportation, Jose Antonio Vargas might easily have been among the country’s most disappointed residents.
The change in procedure will help unauthorized immigrants up to age 30. Vargas, a Pulitizer-prize winning journalist and the unauthorized immigrant behind Time magazine’s current cover story on the issue, turned 31 four months ago. But Vargas also counts himself among those praising the administration for a “bold” and “necessary” move.
"Look, I knew when I got into this that this thing was bigger than me," Vargas told The Huffington Post. "I knew that there were important principles and the futures of millions of people involved. And I know that when change happens there will always be some people born too late or too soon."
Vargas, a former senior contributing editor to The Huffington Post, is referring to a movement lead by young undocumented immigrants that has taken shape in the last two to three years. Some, promising students with little hope of attending college or working more than menial jobs, have outed themselves in newspaper stories. Others have launched hunger strikes and protests at the offices of elected officials, while others have walked the halls of Congress trying to convince members to act on some kind of legislative relief. And this summer, others staged sit-ins at Obama for America offices — local headquarters for Obama’s reelection campaign — in Denver and Detroit. While there are undocumented immigrants from every continent living in the United States, the vast majority of the young activists behind the movement are Latino.
Vargas, brought to the country illegally from the Philippines at the age of 12, embarked on his own activist journey last year when he wrote a New York Times Magazine story that first publicly exposed his status as an undocumented immigrant. He also founded the organization Define American, to advocate for policy change.
In his one-year update first published for Time online late Thursday, Vargas raised a critical set of questions about the nation’s immigration system. If millions of people –- some of them young, educated and well-paid like Vargas, others poor and working low-wage jobs — have lived in this country longer than the places in which they were born, married and become parents to American citizens, where would they go? If they are raising the nation’s children and are engaged in all sorts of important work, then isn’t the very notion of what it means to be an American broader than who is and who is not a citizen? Vargas asked.
By about 7 a.m. Friday, Vargas, a reporter who once wrote for the Washington Post and profiled the likes of Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker, had been on the receiving end of dozens of questions, tweets, Facebook messages and texts from activists and friends who all thought something really big was on the verge of happening. By 8 a.m. Vargas had it confirmed. The president would be making a major immigration-related announcement.
Vargas hopped on a train and got to Washington, D.C. a few hours before the president’s White House Rose Garden speech. Vargas had originally planned to make a trip to D.C. Friday for a few interviews and press events connected to his Time cover story.
Instead, in a conference room at the American Immigration Lawyers Association outfitted with a projector and screen, Vargas watched Obama’s speech with seven or eight other young, undocumented immigrant activists and more reporters than he could count.
"This morning, Secretary Napolitano announced new actions my administration will take to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient and more just, specifically for certain young people sometimes called DREAMers," Obama said. "Now, these are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."
Standing in that room, Vargas was, to his knowledge, the only undocumented immigrant activist present who will not be helped by the announcement.
But also in that room was a young man working three jobs under the table to save enough money to attend a private college. The community college system in the state where he lives bumps undocumented immigrants from classes when citizens want to enroll but a class is full. He has also become an activist, Vargas said.
"I’ve heard those stories," Vargas said. "I’ve met these people. And even though our lives are, in some ways different, I know their struggle. I know this nightmare. So really, how can you not be moved."