Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas, born in the Philippines, raised in the U.S. is a journalist and the founder of “Define American”, organization of immigration rights activists.

Dear America, Notes of an undocumented citizen, is his autobiography. It was published in the year 2018, during Tramp’s administration, which was known as highly oriented towards lowering the number of immigrants in the USA.


Jose Antonio Vargas was sent to the USA, the state of California, when he was 12 years old.

What was in the mind of Emelie Salines that day, when she woke her son up so early in the morning, that it was still dark outside, took him to the airport, handed him to a smuggler (who he thought was his uncle) and watched him leave the Philippines, his home, on his way to America, his new home?

What could have been in the mind of Jose that day, when thirty years later he still remembered the water he flew over as a symbol of division from his mother, never wanting to be near any water again?

Resilient as only a child could be, Jose accepted America. He was taken care of by his grandparents, attended  school, managed to fit in, trying to understand cultural differences, racial issues, national matters and all other stuff that are the part of that melting pot called America. He wrote letters to his mother, about his daily whereabouts, letting her know he was fine, and everything seemed bearable, as if America accepted him.

Photo credit: Marko Radulović

But then he turned 16

“Dear America”, as abovementioned, is a book about a boy who came to America illegally, of which he had no knowledge, until he turned 16.   When Jose applied for a driver’s license, he faced hardly understandable truth that he was illegal immigrant, with no valid documents and no legal right to be in America. At the same time, he realized that he was lied to, by the members of his family.

Jose was sent to America, to get a better life. Consequently, he ended up living in the world of opportunities, seemingly so close to the American dream, which was out of his reach. What were the odds to beat the immigration law other than entering the false marriage, which meant betraying his core beliefs and going against his sexual orientation… Returning to the Philippines was not an option, because he entered America with false passport.

Having realized that other options were unacceptable, Jose decided to try to assimilate as much as possible and try to pass as an American. He could not neutralize legally, but he decided to do it factually. He began to devour American culture; books, movies, poetry. Although being done in sort of despair, it was inspiring. As literature very often does, it gave him a hint, an explanation, a challenge. “You have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not its idea of you” was the quote of James Baldwin, which influenced him.

Jose has gained a decent formal education, which opened many doors. He managed to succeed as a journalist. Moreover, he won a Pulitzer Prize. His cleverness and worldly wisdom were of great help. But, being undocumented, he lived in constant fear of being arrested and deported.  Every application form for the job he had to fill in, every administrative procedure, meant he had to break the law and at any time he could be revealed. For fourteen years Jose’s life was constant improvisation. Then he turned thirty and his only valid document – his driving license expired. He decided that it was enough. At the age of thirty, Jose decided to reveal his undocumented status. By the time he went public, he has already been professionally recognized, had fair income, and a circle of close friends. But he was not free, and he had no strength to run and hide anymore.

“There comes a moment in each of our lives when we must confront the central truth in order for life to go on”, Jose writes.

Jose Antonio Vargas revealed himself to the world as an undocumented citizen through media. The New York Times magazine published his story in 2011.


Right after Jose went public, a non-profit organization “Define American” was born. Jose became an advocate of the millions of other undocumented people, who, one way or another, shared his destiny.

If there is something controversial about this book, it might be the fact that the writer was not a typical undocumented person. Unlike vast majority of undocumented people, he was privileged. He did have certain position and influential friends. He was aware of such controversy, though, and this should not at all sound judgmental – the position he had was deserved through hard work, professional engagement, and being a good person. On the other hand, “Define American” was his way to give support to those less privileged. “Define American” was founded with the idea to create campaigns, ask questions, change the narrative of the immigrant stories.

At the time the book was published, Jose’s immigration status had not yet been resolved.

At present, I firmly believe that he is a fully neutralized citizen, with all civil rights granted.

            But, information on the internet are unclear.


Immigrants, expats, residents, citizens, legal, illegal, undocumented, privileged, underprivileged, separated, divided, black people, white people, white guilt and so on…this book is full of sensitive matters; in a way, this is a story of a man in constant search for identity, trying to define what identity actually means; should it be looked for in terms of belonging to a family, certain ethnic group, nation, or citizenship; or a job? Is it a verb, or a noun? The writer feels homeless and makes a reader wonder what it takes for a person to accept some place as home and some person as a family, when and where can one pass as someone else, and how it is not possible with people that are really close to each other. This is a story about the importance of true friendship as well, and how a person who has friends has a chance, because, among other reasons, passing is impossible without friends.

Jose reminds us of the fact that there are millions of immigrants out there, in search of better life, far away from their homes, and sometimes far from their  families,  and then,  there are immigrant laws and services, which are sometimes overly protective  of their countries , with little or no concern for human rights, and that immigration rights organizations are of paramount importance for the people in need of support and legal assistance or help of any kind, because someone has to represent this people, who more  often than not lack opportunity to be seen or heard.

Immigration is a global phenomenon, a very sensitive one and must be approached carefully and thoroughly, and should be regulated in a way which provides security, safety and civil rights protection for both, natives and immigrants. The writer reminds us that hate and indifference towards immigrants are not the way to deal with this problem.

As it is stated in the book, immigration was never self – caused. In most cases, it was, and is a consequence of other political, economic and military issues and it can only be considered in that context.

To sum up, this is one deeply personal story. Written in journalistic style, it presents a set of well-organized facts and described events. Nothing overly emotional. Except for the letter young boy Jose wrote to his mother, which was full of love. The picture of that letter is so vivid and so is the picture of grown-up man, who cannot recall that emotion anymore; and except for the last two chapters “The cycle of loss” and “The truth”, in which, through painful memories and questions unanswered, there was the ray of hope.

Milena Ranđelović


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