The realities of being an undocumented immigrant today in the USA

I admit it. I probably don’t realize how often I should be asking a question until suddenly I’m stunned by the answer. This is what happened when I read “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” by Jose Antonio Vargas, a successful journalist, immigration activist, and perhaps our most famous undocumented American. For years, I’ve heard people complain: They don’t have a problem with immigrants, what they mind is the ones who’ve come here illegally. Why don’t these people play by the rules and go to the back of the line? 

The question I didn’t think to ask was: What line?

Born in the Philippines, Vargas was 12 when his mother sent him to California to live with his grandparents, who had become U.S. citizens. At 18, appearing at the DMV to take a driver’s test, Vargas was horrified to hear that the green card he had presented as ID was fake. Like 42 percent of all undocumented Americans, Vargas had entered the United States with a passport and simply overstayed his “visit.” In the meantime, his devoted grandfather had saved $4,500 from a low-wage job to buy the fake green card.  

The DMV encounter transformed Vargas into an undocumented immigrant — someone for whom a run-in with the law could turn into a deportation order. Getting a driver’s license, attending college, receiving a scholarship, and obtaining employment — all his milestones — as he then realized, would have to be accomplished by obfuscation and lies. Yet, looking back, Vargas also recognizes how, at these critical moments of claiming a status he didn’t really have, he was saved by strangers who, intentionally or unintentionally, didn’t notice and allowed him to pass.  

Of the estimated 7 million undocumented workers in the U.S. employed on the books, a good many don’t have Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and so use Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) issued by the IRS. However, Vargas claims that 3.1 million use fake or expired SSNs, and their payroll taxes and Social Security payments go into invalid accounts, creating 12 billion dollars annually of uncollectible monies in the Social Security Trust Fund.   

Although the 2001 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, brought hope to 860,000 immigrants like Vargas who had arrived here as children, Vargas was 30 at the time, too old to benefit from the statute.

“It’s up to you to get in line,” a woman tells Vargas, who has been to countless immigration lawyers, and who would “get in line,” if he could. Polite to the woman, he lets out his frustration on the page: “There is no **** line!”

America’s Voice, an organization directed to furthering immigrant rights, reiterates this point: There is no line for undocumented immigrants to wait in. Once immigrants have entered the U.S. without proper papers, they  can’t apply for a green card while here. If they return to their country, they are ineligible to come back to the U.S. for up to 20 years, depending on how long they lived here without authorization. An immigrant who has lived here without authorization for around a year, to take the low end, is typically barred for 10 years. Moreover, even after completion of the waiting period, the U.S. Consulate will not necessarily allow the individual to return. 

The Trump Administration has operated in the belief that making life as uncomfortable as possible for undocumented Americans will get them to self-deport. But, like Vargas, many have families or children who are American citizens, are involved in careers, and feel deeply attached to their communities.

With an “orderly line” encouraging the belief that undocumented immigrants are refusing to right a wrong they have perpetrated, another highly charged image,  “amnesty,” suggests American weakness — a way out that undocumented immigrants haven’t earned. 

If you take seriously the trap that these immigrants are in, then call it whatever you will, but see to it that our country offers a reasonable route to legal residence and citizenship.


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.