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Originally published by The Atlantic

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen BY JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS

I swallowed American culture before I learned how to chew it, recounts Jose Antonio Vargas in his recently released memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Equipped with two different public-library cards, Vargas gorged on newspapers, magazines, books, music, TV shows, and films that he hoped would teach him-then a 16 year old who discovered that he’d been smuggled from the Philippines into the United States-how to pass as an American.

Though Vargas was living in the Bay Area with fake residency documents, his mission was to acquire a citizen’s cultural fluency. Movies in particular made visible the immensity and diversity of America; they also taught him a key lesson on how the experiences and renderings of a single place can differ, depending on who’s telling the story. After watching four distinct films set in New York City, Vargas marvels, How can Martin Scorsese’s New York City be the same as Woody Allen’s New York City, which is not the same thing as Spike Lee’s New York City and Mike Nichols’s New York City?

Vargas’s heightened attention to the powers of perspective heavily informs his book, which spans the past 25 years of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s life. Dear America serves as the most comprehensive follow-up to three works in particular: Vargas’s 2011 New York Times Magazine essay, My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant; his 2012 Time cover story, Not Legal Not Leaving; and his 2013 film, Documented. More notably, the book is Vargas’s first long-form piece of writing that tries, through the use of vignettes, to distinguish his private self from his public persona. Both a journalist and an activist who founded the nonprofit Define American, Vargas notes that he’s often regarded as the most famous undocumented immigrant in America. In other words, he’s aware that his life story will never be entirely read as just his own; still, that doesn’t stop him from attempting to tell that story through memoir-a genre that requires an extended introspection of the self.

In a direct address to his readers early in Dear America, Vargas situates his tale as being only … one of an estimated 11 million here in the United States. This decision to pull away from a single immigration narrative is consistent with how Vargas has approached the subject in the past as a reporter. Though the memoir focuses on his story, it is divided into three sections named for three experiences that he argues all undocumented people share: Lying, Passing, and Hiding. The book seems to follow in the footsteps of Vargas’s literary idol James Baldwin, who, upon returning to the U.S. from France in the midst of the civil-rights movement, recognized the role he could play.

I didn’t think of myself as a public speaker, or as a spokesman, but I knew I could get a story past the editor’s desk, Baldwin said in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review. And once you realize that you can do something, it would be difficult to live with yourself if you didn’t do it. Whether Vargas feels the depth of that responsibility to a larger community (as Baldwin describes) is perhaps unknowable. But the choice-to do something-may not always be a single person’s to make, as a fellow undocumented friend of Vargas’s points out in Dear America: In our movement, you come out for yourself, and you come out for other people. This was especially true for Vargas in 2011 and for the 35 other undocumented people who joined him on the historic June 2012 cover of Time.

As others have observed, Dear America recapitulates experiences the author has written about elsewhere, beginning with the morning a 12-year-old Vargas is awoken by his mother. He’s hurriedly sent in a cab to the airport and flies to the U.S., where he’s taken in by family members who’ve settled in Northern California. The early chapters describe Vargas’s delight at eating Neapolitan ice cream for the first time, his acculturation of American slang, and how he came to understand the U.S. as a place of racial plurality and hyphenated identities. He describes again how, while applying for a driver’s permit at the age of 16, he learns that his green card is fake and that the lies that brought him into the country were now his burden to bear. In a section about what prompted his decision to come out as gay to his high-school classmates and his grandparents, Vargas explains how carrying one secret was difficult enough.

The memoir form, however, allows for pockets of fresh details, including a chapter on what it means to be Filipino-a group, Vargas writes, that seems to fit everywhere and nowhere at all, particularly in national discussions about immigration, which overwhelmingly focus on the Latinx community. In the chapter Mexican Jose and Filipino Jose, Vargas writes about California’s Proposition 187 from 1994 and how even then, whenever ‘illegals’ were brought up in the news … the focus was on Latinos and Hispanics, specifically Mexicans. And later, a classmate who had asked Vargas about his green card points out: I guess you don’t have to worry about your green card … Your name is Jose, but you look Asian.

Vargas’s candid prose is inviting to readers who are new to his story, as well as to those who might be unfamiliar with the complexities of U.S. immigration policy. The author covers the precedents and ramifications of several measures and laws, including the Rescission Act of 1946, Operation Gatekeeper, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, and the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The 1996 laws, Vargas notes, made it easier to criminalize and deport all immigrants, documented and undocumented, and made it harder for undocumented immigrants like me to adjust our status and ‘get legal.’ From countless angles, the memoir illustrates why it’s nearly impossible for Vargas-and incalculable others-to get in line and become an American citizen. (As he emphatically points out multiple times, there is no such line.)

Vargas’s attempt to answer all relevant questions-covering every possible base, taking into account the varied experiences and precarious statuses of the millions living without documents in the U.S.-is where the book gets bogged down. The memoir, as it veers into reportage, loses Vargas in the multitudes. His justified exhaustion at having to continually explain his and others’ predicaments to people across the political spectrum is palpable. Late in Dear America, for example, he expresses his frustration with some of his most acerbic critics: other activists who’ve outright told him that he’s too successful to be the media’s face of the immigrant-rights movement. I exchanged a life of passing as an American and a U.S. citizen so I could work for a life of constantly claiming my privilege so I could exist in the progressive activist world, Vargas writes in a sobering passage.

For many readers like myself who grew up undocumented and who have been following Vargas’s trajectory since his 2011 essay, seeing the exact ways in which his story diverges from our own is the crux of the memoir. His America, as others have pointed out, is one of unusual advantages: He was lucky enough to attend a relatively wealthy school in a community of privilege, a community where people with connections, money, and access to lawyers protected and allowed him to build a life for himself.Committed to freeing himself from the many lies he had to tell to protect his identity, Vargas is forthright and explicit in Dear America about the doors that were opened for him. In the chapter White People, for example, he explains how certain friends helped him obtain a driver’s license. That piece of identification allowed him to accept a summer internship, then a two-year internship, and then a job at The Washington Post-the newspaper where he earned his Pulitzer as part of a team that covered the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. His is an undocumented America of white-collar work and white-collar spaces. In a startling passage about being interviewed by Megyn Kelly on TV, Vargas observes how as a group of people, Kelly calls us ‘illegals,’ but in person, to my face, she always refers to me as undocumented.

Memoirists shouldn’t exaggerate the most gruesome aspects of their lives, explains Mary Karr in an interview with The Paris Review. You have to normalize the incredible. Dear America seeks to lay bare Vargas’s unadulterated truth, which is that even he-with all of his accomplishments, accolades, and associations-is caught up in the labyrinthine U.S. immigration laws without recourse. He was, after all, three months too old to qualify for the limited protections afforded by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a 2012 policy whose age restriction essentially created a generational divide between undocumented people.

Vargas’s lack of temporary legal protection, in fact, is what results in his being detained after a vigil welcoming Central American refugees at the McAllen, Texas, border in the summer of 2014. I do not know where I will be when you read this book, Vargas writes in Dear America‘s prologue. I don’t know when the government will file my [Notice to Appear] and deport me from the country I consider my home. In this moment, the memoir inadvertently asks readers to consider again the estimated 11 million undocumented people in America and wonder how many, like Vargas, might be overlooked in conversations around the revoking of daca and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americansprogram, or bills like the dream Act, whose various iterations have also included age restrictions.

Dear America is significant for its expression of individual difference within the overlapping experiences of undocumented people. As the memoir’s research shows, Vargas’s perspective is but one contribution to an evolving narrative and long-standing history of immigration. It is the individual details of his story, though, that further reveal the breadth of undocumented America. I’m a relative newcomer, Vargas confesses in a moment of intimacy that reminds readers of Dear America‘s epistolary foregrounding. In moments like this one, the solitary voice of Vargas arrives as a letter in the reader’s hands, from a sender, we remember, with no return address to call home.

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Originally published by The NY Times

Soon after the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump, the superintendent of Jose Antonio Vargas’s building in downtown Los Angeles reached out to him. Mr. Vargas had publicly outed himself as undocumented five years prior in a New York Times Magazine essay, and the super wanted to warn him: If Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) agents came knocking, he could not protect him.

Since then, Mr. Vargas has been unmoored, hopping from friends’ apartments to hotels – relinquishing stability for bouts of safety. His memoir, Dear America: Notes From an Undocumented Citizen, explores the emotional undercurrent of his experience, which he divides into three stages: lying, passing and hiding. He wrote Dear America to understand my own sense of dislocation, he said.

In mid-September, I met with Mr. Vargas and two other writers, Julissa Arce and Jose Olivarez, at Boqueria in Midtown Manhattan to discuss their recent books, which touch on similar themes: immigration, belonging and mental health. Ms. Arce’s young adult title, Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought For Her American Dream, is about her childhood in Mexico and, later, her challenges growing up undocumented. Mr. Olivarez was born in the United States to undocumented parents, and the poems in Citizen Illegal, his debut collection, center on his experience as a second generation immigrant, opening with a poem called (Citizen)(Illegal) that blurs the line between his parents’ status and his own.

Theirs are among a handful of recent and upcoming books that explore the immigrant experience in the United States: American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures, edited by America Ferrera, compiles essays from dozens of actors, comedians, writers and others whose parents or grandparents emigrated from elsewhere, and We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults, edited by Susan Kuklin, will be published in January.

Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Jose, you haven’t seen your mom since you left the Philippines. How has the separation affected you? And why was it important for you to include the people who saved you?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS That was actually the psychological thing I was trying to unlock in the book, what the cost of that separation has been. I don’t really have the language: How do I talk about the fact that I left when I was 12, and that I don’t remember what I said to my mom or what she said to me? The moments are bigger than any language I can come up with. Home for me was her, and then she sent me here, and I had to come up with another home. What is really keeping me here are all of my other adoptive moms.

I had this naive idea that when I became a citizen everything would change, and I would just be American, said Ms. Arce. But I am still dealing with so much of the trauma.CreditBrad Ogbonna for The New York Times

In the book, when I say mixed status, I’m not just talking about undocumented people with citizen relatives. I’m talking about the fact that undocumented people could not be in this country if there weren’t United States citizens who allow us to lie, pass and hide. There are millions of people in this country who employ us, who go to school with us, who mentor us, who have been part of this entire thing, and they are part of that family.

JULISSA ARCE One narrative that I feel we don’t often talk about is the children who are left behind by the immigrants who come here. There are towns in Mexico where there are no dads, because all of them are working here. That is one piece of my story that I had to push really hard for my editor and my publisher to let me spend that much time on in the book. I used to think my parents loved the U.S. more than they loved me.

When did you become aware of what it means to be undocumented?

JOSÉ OLIVAREZ My dad became a citizen when I was in fifth grade, and it wasn’t until I saw him studying for the civics test that I realized that my parents were undocumented. For years before that we would spend every Saturday in the basement office of an immigration lawyer. My parents wouldn’t tell us why; I just knew every Saturday we had to go to this office, and my parents would talk to the lawyer. When I found out, I was like, “How is it that me and my brothers are citizens but almost no one in my family is?

My high school had a poetry slam team, and it was the first time I saw that you were allowed to write stories about all these questions I had been collecting – big questions I had been taught, as a survival method, not to ask.

ARCE When I found out I was undocumented, I was 14, and I was bugging my mom about going to Mexico for my quinceañera. I kept bugging her, and, finally, she blurted out, You can’t go to Mexico because your visa is expired, and if you go, you can’t come back. Because I was 14, I couldn’t process the weight of the thing my mom had just shared with me. To me, I was a normal teenager, like everybody else at my school.

That’s why this young adult book was so important for me. When I was in middle school I never read a book about undocumented people or in which the protagonist is a Latina. Today, I went to a school, and I talked to 200 fifth graders. We talked about what someone like me can do. These kids were like Someone like me can become a doctor and Someone like me can become a biologist. Some of those kids were undocumented, and I really wanted them to feel like someone like them can – even if they don’t look like the people in all of the books they’re reading.

VARGAS I found out I was undocumented when I was a freshman in high school, and by then I was like, I’m undocumented, so what’s the point of trying? Then, I learned that when you get a byline, your name would be in the paper, and that’s literally the only reason I became a journalist – just so my name could be on a piece of paper.

ARCE It’s so interesting. Jose, you found out you were undocumented, and you wanted your name to be on a piece of paper, that meant something to you. When I found out I was undocumented, I decided, I am going to get rich, and when I am rich it’s not going to matter that I’m undocumented. It’s what you do when you find out your status – think of how you are going to solve it or be able to live with it.


How did you reconcile wanting to live an American life with your immigration status?

VARGAS By questioning the very meaning of American. In this book, I was very deliberate in including Toni Morrison and what The Bluest Eye meant to me as a kid. This young black woman in Morrison’s book believed that she was ugly, believed that she was unworthy, believed that she needed blue eyes to be beautiful. Morrison said she wrote that book because she wanted to show what happens when somebody surrenders to the master narrative. From the very beginning, assimilation – whatever that means – was this space of trying to understand the history of black people in this country, which really unlocks everything else.

OLIVAREZ When I started going to schools with primarily English speakers, I thought: If I am just the best at spelling, none of these white kids are going to be able to tell me anything about my accent; about my parents or where we come from. If I beat them at everything, they have to accept me. But what I found was that no matter how good I got at anything, I was never going to be accepted. And so when I started writing, and I turned to black literature, it did unlock this idea that I actually didn’t want to participate in America as constructed. I wanted to construct a world where I didn’t have to erase parts of myself. Poetry gave me a space to talk about the in-betweenness that I felt and ask myself questions like, What kind of home do I want to create for myself?

ARCE I very distinctly remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement in the seventh grade, and this American history that was black and white. I didn’t see where Latinos fit in. I remember asking my parents, What fountain did we drink from? I had to fit one of these two American narratives, and unconsciously I decided that I needed to be white. Even before I came to live here, I used to watch Dennis the Menace and Beverly Hills 90210, and everybody that was American was white. I didn’t want to wear big hoops because I didn’t want to look Mexican or for people to question me about being undocumented. Only now that I am an adult have I realized that I lived with this definition of America that was so narrow.

Has the election of Donald Trump affected how you think about your status and identity?

ARCE I had this naïve idea that when I became a citizen everything would change, and I would just be American. There is obviously a really big weight lifted off my shoulders, but I am still dealing with so much of the trauma; papers don’t change that.

Since the election, there have been so many people that have been emboldened to say out loud what they have been feeling for a long time. So I still get: You should be deported. You’re not a real citizen. Why haven’t they taken your citizenship away?

OLIVAREZ I work with teenagers a lot, and after the election I was here in New York, and we had open office hours for any of our young people who wanted to come and process what they were going through. We had a bunch of them come through, and they were just so hurt. If you were a teenager in 2016, it was your first big political heartbreak. Suddenly their conception of what was possible was shattered.

VARGAS In the undocumented community, we don’t talk about depression. I juggle a lot of things, and that’s how I deal with my depression.

OLIVAREZ It’s totally appropriate to talk about mental health, because that’s not unrelated from issues of immigration. One of the things that younger readers ask is: How did you write this? In my family we don’t talk about any of these things. People don’t realize how many silences exist. There are things my mom and dad don’t want to talk about, so I can’t really ask them too many questions about how they came to the United States – that’s traumatic for them. The impact is that there were so many gaps in our relationships. I wanted to write toward those silences.

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Originally published by The Washington Post

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) often touts her administration’s immigrant legal-aid fund when activists say she hasn’t done enough to protect undocumented residents from President Trump’s immigration crackdown.

The mayor’s office has awarded $1 million to nonprofit organizations that have used the money to file dozens of asylum and visa applications, hold informational sessions about immigration law and train attorneys to offer pro bono help to immigrants.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reported hundreds of arrests in the Washington region in recent months, although statistics were not readily available for immigrants who specifically were living in the District. But unlike other cities that have created immigrant defense funds since Trump took office, Washington does not use tax dollars to help undocumented adults once they are detained by federal authorities and face deportation.

Some advocates say those cases need the most help, and D.C. Council members set aside $400,000 in this year’s budget to do just that. But the Bowser administration redirected that money into its grants program for immigrant legal services, which drew 23 applications for $900,000 in grants to be awarded next month.

Aides to Bowser say the program was already on precarious ground because of attention from Republicans in Congress, which has veto power over the District’s laws and spending. By not funding the legal defense of detained immigrants, the city eliminated the most contentious issue, they said.

Training attorneys, teaching immigrants about their rights, and helping immigrants with asylum and visa applications is the best way we can help and have a program that survives congressional scrutiny, said John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff.

When a few dozen protesters rallied outside city hall after ICE detained 132 immigrants in the District and Virginia this summer, the mayor’s staff distributed fliers promoting the grants.

They bring up immigrant legal services precisely because they do not want to address people detained by ICE, said Todd Brogan, a local Democratic Party official and progressive activist. It’s their way of saying, ‘We do stuff for immigrants without actually doing stuff for the immigrants being detained.’

Bowser’s critics agree that nonprofit groups benefiting from the mayor’s grant program do valuable work. While the grants are administered by the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, groups serving Asian and African immigrants have also received funding.

The first nonprofit groups to receive grants in 2017 offered initial consultations to more than 300 immigrants, drew 800 people to know-your-rights sessions and trained 183 attorneys on immigration matters, according to reports submitted to the city. They also reported filing 33 citizenship and 60 visa applications and opening 59 asylum cases in 2017.

Comparable figures are not yet available for 2018 grant recipients.

Briya Charter School – a public charter school that provides classes to parents and their children, including English, digital literacy, parenting and early education, as well as high school diploma programs – used the grant funding to partner with a law firm to offer 100 subsidized consultations between students and attorneys and hold nine know-your-rights assemblies.

There can be misinformation that’s spread and situations where people will commit fraud and pretend to be lawyers or pretend to be notaries and take advantage of people, especially when those people are fearful, said Raquel Farah, student services coordinator at Briya. So it’s important for us to have a trustworthy resource that gets them factual information that they can trust about their case.

Some grant recipients said the money should be made available for detained immigrants, even if they aren’t equipped to provide those services.

There’s a real threat to due process, and there’s a real need to provide those kind of services, said Amaha Kassa of African Communities Together, a group that assists detained immigrants in New York and has used grant funding in the District to provide proactive legal assistance to 35 mostly Ethio­pian residents. It’s more resource-intensive to meet with your lawyer if you are detained.

The Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition is the biggest regional organization offering legal services to detained immigrants. It has received funding from Baltimore City and Prince George’s County in Maryland. The group declined to seek a grant from a similar program in Montgomery County after officials added restrictions regarding which immigrants could benefit.

Elsewhere in the country, New York offers the equivalent of a public defender program for immigrants in detention. Los Angeles, Seattle and other large cities also use public money to help detained immigrants. The Vera Institute of Justice offers matching funds to 11 jurisdictions that use public dollars for deportation defense, including Atlanta, Chicago and Sacramento.

Unlike in criminal cases, there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings.

If you cannot afford an attorney, you have to go before an immigration judge and prosecuting attorney on your own, said Annie Chen, the immigration project manager for New York-based Vera. More local governments are seeing local community members ending up in immigration detention and deportation, and they are seeing more of the need for these programs in their community.

The D.C. Council tried to address this issue in the most recent budget cycle by redirecting the mayor’s proposed $400,000 increase to the legal-grants program to the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, with the goal of providing direct legal representation to immigrants who have been detained.

The Bowser administration instead kept the money in the legal-grants program, saying that the purpose of the extra funds was not specified in the budget and that it makes more sense to have one agency managing the whole program. But one lawmaker said the move defies the will of the council.

Once they are detained, we have to get them legal representation. There’s a very clear need especially now that ICE has come to our community, said council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who represents one of the most immigrant-heavy parts of the city. Right now, we haven’t met the legal need for representation. I don’t see that changing if the executive doesn’t take that need seriously.

Bowser’s office also relaxed other restrictions on the grant program, such as allowing recipients to use funds for children in deportation proceedings.

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) has used $80,000 in grants to hire a second full-time attorney and a part-time paralegal to handle complex cases involving unaccompanied minors who crossed the border. The attorney is involved in nearly 50 cases as either the primary lawyer or a mentor to an outside attorney offering a child in the District legal services pro bono.

Some of those urgent cases have included children on the verge of turning 18 who needed a judge to issue a stay for their cases before their birthday, and several children with disabilities, documentation complications and other issues.

Attorneys make a huge difference in these kids’ cases, said Priya Konings, the deputy director of legal services for KIND. To have a child go before immigration court without one is a travesty.

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Originally published by The Atlantic

Andy magdaleno should have been born in california. And he would have been born there, just like his sister Beatriz was eight years earlier, had it not been for an unexpected visit from a government worker one day in March.

The year was 1986. Andy’s parents, Juan and Concepcion, were undocumented immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico, living in Anaheim, California, with six of their children, roughly ages one to 10. Life was hard. When Juan wasn’t working, he would collect cans to supplement their earnings. As Concepcion tells the story, a neighbor made a complaint because she believed the family wasn’t reporting the income from the cans. Then, someone they believed to be from a government agency came to the neighborhood to talk to them. His parents feared that their undocumented status and the visit to their house meant that they were at risk, and might be separated from their children.

Juan decided it would be best if Concepcion took the kids back to their small community in Mexico. She was about three months pregnant at the time. Andy was born in Mexico in September of 1986. The family spent two years there before returning to the United States at the behest of their father, who had stayed behind.

Different members of the family came back in different ways: The family’s five children who had been born in the United States crossed with their father’s cousin, presenting their birth certificates at the border. Andy, on the other hand, crossed over the border illegally, carried by his mother. They ended up in Selma, California-a small agricultural town in Fresno County known as the raisin capital of the world. That’s where Andy grew up until he was about 9 years old.

Andy, age five, in his kindergarten school photo. (Courtesy of the Magdaleno family)

In these agricultural towns of fresno county, mixed-status families are common. The situation can create inequalities within families that ripple out into the wider community. It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many families like Andy’s there are in Fresno County. According to analysis of 2016 American Community Survey data done by the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, just over 10 percent, or roughly 94,500, of the county’s documented residents-both U.S. citizens and documented immigrants-live with at least one undocumented family member. That’s a rate that mirrors the rest of California. This estimate does not account for undocumented family members who live in different households, so the actual number may be even higher. (To generate these estimates, USC analyzed ACS data covering the years 2012 through 2016.)

Rhonda Ortiz, the managing director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, says mixed-status families are common not just in Fresno County, but throughout the United States.

Jesus Martinez, chair of the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, says he sees such families all the time in the DACA application workshops his coalition runs. He points to several factors to explain how this came to be, what he considers, fairly normal. While mass Mexican migration to the United States has occurred since the end of 19th century, immigration policy has changed over time-in recent years, becoming stricter or more lenient depending on the national mood.

Decades ago, many immigrants arrived as lawful permanent residents or with some form of visa. Others were able to achieve legal status once they arrived through, for example, the legalization provisions in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. But in more recent years, in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, there have been fewer opportunities for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status. With the increased militarization of the border, seasonal workers who once traveled back and forth between the two countries have been choosing to stay in the United States on a more permanent basis, living in the country without documentation for longer periods of time. In fact, a report from the USC center and San Diego State University indicates that undocumented immigrants in Fresno County have lived in the United States for a median length of 10 years, according to 2008 to 2012 data. (The USC center’s data manager, Justin Scoggins, says the length of stay is likely to be longer now, considering research showing the rate of undocumented migration has decreased.)

The fluctuations in immigration policies means that family members can easily have different legal statuses depending on when they arrived in the U.S. Undocumented immigrants who once traveled between the U.S. and Mexico may now be raising families full-time in the United States and giving birth to children who are citizens. U.S.-born children are going to be able to be eligible for every type of program imaginable, Martinez says. So within the family there’s going to be this unequal access to services, to education, and to medical care. We see those families all the time.

The USC center’s 2012 Immigrant Integration Scorecard ranked the Fresno region last in the state when it comes to successfully integrating immigrants (evaluated in the report by economic mobility, civic participation and warmth of welcome for immigrants). Although Fresno employs immigrants in its large agricultural industry, it states, …[t]hese seasonal, low-paying jobs do not lift immigrants out of poverty and keep them constantly on the move. Ortiz, a co-author of the report, cautions that the research for this report took place around 2011-2012, and that the landscape for immigrant integration in the county may have changed since.

For Martinez of the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, a person’s undocumented status isn’t in and of itself a limiting factor in leading a successful, civically-engaged life. But, the problem, he says, is that not everyone is able to identify possibilities for upward mobility and integration that do exist. That’s especially true in today’s political climate, given the level of fear among the undocumented population, he says. Many are uncertain about being in contact with any type of government agency, about purchasing a home, about establishing a business. That’s one of the consequences of their fear, he told me.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program that might have helped Andy, who is now 31 years old, did not exist while he was growing up. Created in June 2012 and open for applications in August of the same year, the program temporarily protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and meet certain eligibility requirements related toage, length of residence in the United States, and education and military service, from deportation. DACA also provides them with work authorization. It does not, however, provide a pathway to legal status. Mixed-status families like Andy’s came into the national spotlight after President Trump rescinded the program in September 2017. A survey conducted by UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that respondents who were DACA recipients are overwhelmingly from mixed-status families.

Federal judges blocked attempts to end the program earlier this year, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has resumed accepting renewal applications. In late April, a federal judge ruled that the government must also begin accepting new applications, but stayed his decision for 90 days to give the Department of Homeland Security-which administers the program-the opportunity to “better explain its rescission decision.” Earlier this month, that same judge ordered a full restoration of the program. But with promises of further legal battles ahead and no legislative solution in sight, the program’s ultimate fate-and the fate of its roughly 700,000 recipients and their families-remains uncertain.

Andy came to the united states as a toddler. Growing up, he wasn’t really aware of his undocumented status. But he noticed little things-little ways that his experience differed from his siblings-that hinted at it. For one, unlike many of his siblings, he didn’t have health insurance. My mom used to have this little stack of cards which was like the Medicare, the Medi-Cal cards…and I would always ask why don’t I have one, he told me.

While Andy was growing up, undocumented immigrants-including children-were not eligible for full-coverage Medi-Cal under state law, according to Carolina Gamero, a spokesperson for the immigrant rights organization California Immigrant Policy Center. Today, all children under the age of 19 are eligible regardless of immigration status, provided they meet all other requirements, which include a qualifying income and California residency.

But it wasn’t until high school that Andy realized the full extent of what was going on. He wanted to play on the school’s football team and they required insurance. So he asked his mom whether he had coverage. She told him no, but declined to explain further. I talked to my older sisters and they were the ones that explained to me that you’re not documented, you can’t have insurance, he said. His school’s football team had a separate insurance program that he could pay for independently, so Andy ended up playing anyway. But from that moment on, Andy began to notice other disadvantages he faced that his siblings didn’t-and many that could be traced back to his immigration status.

Andy and his parents at a high school football game. (Courtesy of the Magdaleno family)

In high school, Andy wanted a job. As early as six or seven years old, he had worked alongside his parents and older siblings in the grape fields, helping them make a bit of extra money during the summers. Juan and Concepcion wanted their kids to know what it was to work and to understand the value of a good education. Andy remembers them telling him and his siblings that they could either work with our back or with our brains. As teenagers, several of his siblings who were citizens moved on from the fieldwork they had done together as children to slightly easier jobs: One worked at a Jack-in-the-Box. Another had a job at Burger King. His sister Beatriz had an office job, doing administrative work for a security company.

But at around the age of 16, Andy continued in the fields, picking peaches, nectarines, plums, and pomegranates together with his father. He knew that without the same documentation as his siblings, he probably couldn’t get work elsewhere.  I remember my shoulders hurt, my legs. I was dirty. I was burned from the sun. It wasn’t a good experience, especially not for a kid, he said.

Andy had always liked school. It was easy for him, especially compared to the kind of work he had done in the fields. In high school, he got As and Bs in most of his classes. But, he assumed that his undocumented status meant that he couldn’t take the SATs or attend college. There was a moment in high school where it just felt–I felt really bad that I couldn’t do anything, he said. Beatriz, on the other hand, was the first in their family to go to college.

The truth is, in 2004, when Andy graduated from high school, there was nothing preventing undocumented students from taking the SATs or applying to college, according to Martinez. But many undocumented students in the Central Valley and beyond get bad advice, based on misinformation from their families or schools. Some have told us openly that their high school counselors told them not to apply because they were undocumented, said Martinez of CVIIC. Andy believed he couldn’t apply to college or take the SAT because that’s what family members told him. He says because there were other educational opportunities that he couldn’t participate in-his high school driver’s ed classes, for example-that required an ID, he assumed that the SATs would be the same. Martinez says that Andy probably believed he would be in danger if he had applied, which is ridiculous, unfortunately.

The cost of college was also a factor, as it is for many undocumented students-since, at the time, state and federal aid weren’t available to undocumented students. Without the assistance he could not afford to attend a California State University (CSU) or a University of California-system school. (Today, state aid is available through the California Dream Act, but federal aid is not.) In 2005, he started at Fresno City College, despite feeling as though he could have gone to a state school.

While studying at fresno city, andy met a girl. Her name was Miranda. She was a U.S. citizen, born and raised in Fresno. Her family was Mexican too, but the way she and Andy grew up was very different-two opposite ends of the spectrum, as she puts it. He had to go to work in the fields as a kid with his parents … I could run around the neighborhood and play with my cousins. Miranda and Andy dated for about two years. During that time, Miranda saw how much Andy struggled because of his status. She says that he was depressed because he had been working so hard. They wanted to get him documented-so they decided to get married to help speed up the process. A few weeks after their wedding they started to gather paperwork to petition for his immigrant visa. A few months later, they received instructions from various government agencies on what Andy had to do next.

A checklist of items Andy and Miranda gathered to pursue his visa. (Courtesy of the Magdaleno family)

As Andy understood it, he had to attend two appointments at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, where family-based immigrant visa interviews are held: At the first appointment, in September 2008, he would present his case. At the second appointment in November, they would let him know whether or not he would receive a visa to return to the U.S. and obtain his residency. In the two month period between those appointments, he would not be allowed to return to the United States.

Andy was excited about that two-month stay in Mexico. He had been working non-stop for years and he thought this would be a good opportunity for a short vacation. He and his mother, Concepcion-who had since become a legal permanent resident-crossed the border. It was Andy’s first time back in the country in 20 years, since the two years he had spent there as a child.

On September 23, 2008, Andy and his mom attended his first appointment. But things didn’t go as he planned. “They told me, ‘We’re not going to let you back into the U.S. for three years.’ The news was devastating, both to him and his family. My dad doesn’t cry a lot…when he found out about Andy, I think that’s one of the first times I saw him cry, Beatriz, Andy’s sister told me.

The first year or so was hard. Andy knew some Spanish, but it was a bit broken and he was less comfortable with the language than English. He was living in the small, rural community where his parents grew up. Despite having dozens of cousins that could help him with the transition, the lifestyle was completely different from what he had known in the United States. People lived off the land and a steady income was hard to come by. His siblings would send him money to help him make ends meet. Eventually, he saved to move to Irapuato, a larger city that felt a bit closer to home. He worked at a movie theater for a few months and then found a job teaching English. Andy spent a total of four years in Mexico, including the time it took to reapply for his visa. During that time, the family did their best to stay in touch: phone calls and Skype sessions and visits from siblings, parents, and his then-wife (the two are now divorced). But the separation still took its toll.

Four years after his 2008 appointment, Andy returned to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez. They reviewed his case, gave him his immigrant visa and a few weeks later his permanent residency arrived in the mail. He came back to the United States on July 4th, 2012. I just felt like hey I finally belong here, he said. I could celebrate July 4th because I’m legally here now. The very next month, Andy returned to school.

Before he left for Mexico, Andy had earned an associates degree in liberal arts. He says he had stuck to a broad major in part because of his status. He felt unmotivated in school because he knew that even if he finished, his job prospects would be limited. In Mexico, he met several engineers and became interested in their work. Upon his return to the country, he went back to Fresno City College to take the prerequisite courses for an engineering degree. He later transferred to Fresno State to study civil engineering. “I got back and I realized now I have everything,” he said.

While pursuing his bachelor’s degree, Andy took a timber design class with Kimberly Stillmaker, a professor at Fresno State. She remembers him standing out right away as a curious and invested student. Beyond his inquisitive spirit, Stillmaker noticed that he was the type of student who put her at ease, especially as a first-time professor. If I had to pause and collect my thoughts, she says, he would be vocal about saying something like, ‘It’s okay, take your time. You know we’re all here to support you.’

She was curious about how he had developed that sense, Andy ended up telling her his whole story. She remembers asking him why he didn’t try to come back illegally, given that he had lived in the United States undocumented for most of his life. He said that he wanted to do it right, that it had been hard for him to grow up without residency and it was important for him to do what they asked.

I remember having so much respect for him. It was really quite amazing that despite his situation and the apparent inequity of it all that he was willing to go through that in order to have a better life in the end, Stillmaker said. For Stillmaker, meeting Andy has had a profound impact on the way she views immigration. I’ve always kind of been the type of person who feels like we have laws and they need to be followed and that’s part of what makes America orderly, she said. Before it was very easy to have those types of opinions, before I knew someone who was personally affected by them. During his senior year, Stillmaker encouraged Andy to pursue graduate school. But he was hesitant. She realized that he was worried about the financial burden. So, she encouraged him to apply for a scholarship. He ended up being one of the four students selected from the civil engineering program for a full-ride scholarship to the master’s program. He is now at Fresno State, studying to become a structural engineer.

Andy says the experience of growing up undocumented put him at a disadvantage in a lot of ways. Being stuck in Mexico, in particular, was hard. As it was happening, I was not happy about it, he says. It was like, ‘Why is this happening to me? But now, his attitude has changed. The challenges he faced in order to return to the United States made him all the more driven to build a life he’s proud of, and to do it in the place he’s always called home.

Sawsan Morrar contributed to this story.

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Originally published by LA Times

As if President Trump’s America needed more reason to hate California, here comes news that San Francisco began to register noncitizens last week to vote for local school board races this November.

Actually, it’s old news: Voters OK’d the plan in 2016 with the passage of Measure N. But its implementation has triggered Fox News and their peers, and has Republican politicians whispering that this is the latest Democratic plot to use undocumented Mexicans to destroy America – never mind that most of the people now eligible to vote in San Francisco are actually Chinese.

Conservatives need to calm down. Noncitizen voting already is happening in some Maryland towns, and democracy there is still alive. Giving them access to the ballot box is a great gesture – it lets more people hold government accountable, adds a shot of vitality to our democracy, blah blah blah.

But why stop at San Francisco? The state Legislature should move toward letting noncitizen residents – over 18, of course – vote in all local and state elections.

California already grants driver’s licenses for undocumented folks and is a sanctuary state. Why not take the next logical step?

It’s a steep task that will require changing California’s Constitution. But the achievement would ensure that at a time when the state is more inequitable than ever, everyone has a voice.

Noncitizens, legal and not, are ready. Many have been residents for decades; the younger ones learned the principles of American democracy in our school systems, and some use that knowledge to volunteer for candidates and causes. Their economic power and concern for our collective future is qualification enough to earn a place in the voting booth.

How is it just that an adult who’s lived in El Monte for more than two decades has less of a say in California politics than a native New Yorker who’s lived in Highland Park for less than a year only because the latter is a citizen and the former isn’t?

Barring noncitizens from voting is not only illogical but also ahistorical. Noncitizens participated in local, state and even federal elections almost from the start of the Republic. The book Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the U.S. discusses at length this phenomenon, noting that “this 150-year history has been eviscerated from national memory.”

Our founding fathers and pioneers knew in their time what should seem obvious today: People who have a stake in the well-being of their communities should have the chance to choose who represents them, regardless of documentation.

Of course, those same men also denied suffrage to groups they deemed dangerous. Slaves. African Americans decades after emancipation. Women. And as more people came from countries that weren’t considered white, immigrants.

Bigotry, not lack of citizenship, has always driven disenfranchisement. So it makes perfect sense that conservatives are angry about the San Francisco case: Noncitizens are the bogeyman of the moment.

But I’d argue that including noncitizens in elections might be the last chance to make the Republican Party relevant again in California.

Imagine if GOP firebrands like Devin Nunes or Kevin McCarthy suddenly had to moderate their message lest they face the wrath of the angry, undocumented farmworkers who make up a significant chunk of their rural congressional districts. Then they might appeal to citizens too. Besides, conservative politicians might find immigrant voters more receptive than not to the GOP message of less government and more family values.

Too bad the GOP won’t even consider this possibility – an example of a political party that can’t see the burrito for the beans.

So forget them. California already grants driver’s licenses for undocumented folks and is a sanctuary state. Why not take the next logical step?

In 2020, there are no statewide offices up for grabs. So let’s have Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra travel the state and urge noncitizens to push for the vote. They’ll surely value enfranchisement more than born-and-bred citizens, who make a true mockery of democracy through low participation. (Only 37% of registered voters bothered with this year’s primary.)

The year 2020 is also when Trump plans to run again, and he’ll no doubt rail against our grand experiment. But that’s another opportunity for California to act as the vanguard against Trump and his posse.

What’s the worst that can happen? Trump and U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions target us even more? Meh. They who have no voice or vote in the electing of representatives do not enjoy liberty, Benjamin Franklin wrote back in the day, but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes and their representatives.

Slavery ended more than 150 years ago. Let noncitizens vote.

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