The PEN Pod: Claiming Ourselves Through Language with Jose Antonio Vargas
Today on The PEN Pod, we are joined by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated filmmaker. A leading voice on human rights and immigration, Jose is the author of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, co-founder of the nonprofit media and culture organization Define American, and co-producer of the hit play What the Constitution Means to Me. We spoke with Jose about how the pandemic is impacting immigrants in the United States and around the globe, as well as the unique freedom that is inherent in writing.
We were already facing a national crisis over immigration, and now, of course, borders are closed, refugees are languishing in camps. How has the coronavirus crisis changed the immigration situation in the United States?
There’s been a lot of conversation around how this virus is the great equalizer—from Prince Charles, to Tom Hanks, to Chris Cuomo. In many ways, yes, it is. But then it has also revealed how unequal the response has been. The first thing I’ll note is that we have so many industries in this country—the agriculture industry, the service industry, the food industry, the hotel industry—that are all reliant on undocumented workers. Talk to Donald Trump about his hotels, right? And yet, here we are, passing the largest stimulus relief package in the history of this country, and undocumented workers were completely left off of it. In many ways, you could argue, and argue very well, that undocumented workers are actually the most marginalized of all of these groups.
I don’t want to get into this whole “Oppression Olympics” thing, but clearly they’re completely vulnerable. They’re completely in need, especially considering that undocumented workers actually pay into the system. We pay income, federal, state, and local taxes. And all you gotta do, by the way, is go to defineamerican.com/factsmatter and you’ll see that undocumented immigrants have paid billions of dollars in taxes—talk to the IRS and Social Security. And yet, the master narrative of undocumented immigrants is so cemented in people’s psyche that the government doesn’t even want to recognize that it gets money from us, so therefore, we’re not a part of the relief package. Talk about being socially distant. It cemented this idea that undocumented people have always been socially distant from this country. The country could not survive without the labor. So whenever the president or an elected official or somebody on TV says, “We want to provide to American citizens,” that clearly doesn’t include us, legally or morally.
“The master narrative of undocumented immigrants is so cemented in people’s psyche that the government doesn’t even want to recognize that it gets money from us, so therefore, we’re not a part of the relief package. Talk about being socially distant. It cemented this idea that undocumented people have always been socially distant from this country.”
Another thing that concerns a lot of us at PEN America is that we’re seeing actions being taken under the cover of the virus that potentially are just part of a deeper anti-immigrant agenda.
For me, actually, as an amateur student of history, my biggest fear about all of this is, first of all, as you noted, they’ve closed all the borders. We are, in many ways, effectively shut down immigration-wise, right here in the States and across the world. Given what’s happened with Brexit, what’s happening in this country because of President Trump and Stephen Miller, what if the actual response to this, months or years from now, is that we actually say “Let’s close off the borders. Fighting this pandemic means let’s just close off the borders”? So that is what I’ve been sitting here trying to wrap my head around. What’s ironic is that this pandemic has revealed how interconnected we are as people. That wasn’t the case in 1918, when the Spanish flu hit. We didn’t know in real time what was happening to us. Now we know. So what does that mean for how connected we have to be as people, and how does migration fit into that connection?
We’ve talked to a lot of people for this podcast who think that there’s going to be some degree of reinvention after this. Do you fall on the optimistic path, the pessimistic path, or somewhere in between?
There’s that great James Baldwin quote: “I refuse to be a pessimist because I am alive.” To be a pessimist means that life is nothing but an academic matter, so I have to be an optimist. And then I look at a place like Portugal. Here’s a recent headline: “Portugal is treating migrants as residents during the coronavirus crisis.” Here’s the lead paragraph. “All foreigners in Portugal with pending applications will be treated as permanent residents for Monday until at least July 1st, ensuring that migrants have access to public services during the coronavirus outbreak.” So that, to me, is really optimistic, that here’s the country of Portugal making a very conscious choice to say that this is not an “us versus them” moment. This is actually an “all of us” moment.
If only we could say the same about the United States. The United States is still keeping, what, forty thousand immigrants locked up in detention centers. To be here in this country illegally is a civil offense, and not a criminal one. And yet the narrative is so attached to, “We’re criminals.” That’s what Fox News says. That’s what the president says. That’s what the president says. And so what does that look like? The fact that here we are in this country—half of all farmers that are picking, planting and packaging our food are undocumented. They have no access to health insurance. They have no access to paid sick leave. They have no access, if you think about it, to what actual social distancing means. Social distancing is not conducive to how migrants have to live their lives so that we can eat.
“There’s an emerging narrative around what it means to claim ourselves as people, as human beings, and doing it through language and writing. Writing, for me, as an undocumented person was the only place where I was free.”
There have also been all these questions about supermarkets and running out of food, and yet, the Grocers Association says, “Hey, we don’t have to worry about the food supply chain in the United States.” And a lot of that is predicated on the fact that it rests on the backs of laborers who are undocumented.
Well, because, again, we care about the food. I’m not quite so sure we care about the people behind the food.
Do you find that literature is helping you cope right now?
Interestingly enough, I’ve just been reading. I have to say, almost nine years ago now when I came out as undocumented and started Define American, I never thought I would see a book published by a major publishing house like Penguin Random House. The One World imprint just published a book called The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. I’m halfway through it, and it’s exquisite. A few months ago, there was a book by someone who was formerly undocumented, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land. When my book came out, Grace Talusan, a Filipina American writer, wrote a book called The Body Papers. So I’ve been thinking about writing an essay about reading all these books by undocumented and formerly undocumented immigrants. I just feel like there’s an emerging narrative around what it means to claim ourselves as people, as human beings, and doing it through language and writing. Writing, for me, as an undocumented person was the only place where I was free. I don’t need a passport or a green card to write. I didn’t ask permission from anybody. So I absolutely think there is a need for literature.
The other thing I started doing, which was kind of scary—but now I find cathartic—is reading an oral history from Mike Nichol’s friends. I’m a huge fan of Mike Nichols, the director who came to this country, by the way, as a refugee. And it made me rewatch Angels in America, a landmark movie. It’s a miniseries on HBO that really is a movie. And then after watching that on HBO again, I ended up reaching for my copy of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—the actual play. There’s a great line by Belize—one of the characters, the nurse—who says, “The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the note to the word free (‘in the land of the free’) so high nobody could reach it.” So I think for me, I’m finding a lot of comfort in knowing that whatever we have to survive, we always try to survive.
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