Undocumented New Yorkers define ‘American’

The Define American event at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side featured artwork illustrating the emotional and mental experience of being undocumented. Credit: Define American.
The #UndocumentedNYC event at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side featured artwork illustrating the emotional and mental experience of being undocumented. In these portraits by Gerardo Mendez, undocumented immigrants wear scarves that read: “Undocumented. Unafraid. Unapologetic.” Credit: Define American/Danielle Tcholakian.

Cesar Vargas remembers the first time he was conscious of his identity as a New Yorker, when he traveled out of state and people asked him to say “water.”

“I was like, ‘water, why?’” he recounted, stretching out the “ah” in water with a grin. “And they said, ‘we love your accent.’”

“I’m a New Yorker first,” declared Vargas, whose mother brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was five years old. “Then I’m pretty much everything else.”

Cesar Vargas spoke at an event called #UndocumentedNYC on Monday night led by the country’s most famous undocumented immigrant, Jose Antonio Vargas—”no relation,” Cesar Vargas said of Jose Antonio Vargas, who hails from the Phillipines. “He’s my Asian brother, as we say.”

#UndocumentedNYC, sponsored in part by Jose Antonio Vargas’ “Define American” organization, coincided with the 10th anniversary of Immigrant Heritage Week, a tradition established by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2004.

Fatima Shama, who runs the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, described Immigrant Heritage Week as “a moment in our city where we do not forget who we are, where we celebrate time and again the richness of what has made us the best and the finest and the greatest city in the world.”

“The city was built by immigrants,” Shama declared, “not just yesterday, but it continues to be the reality today.”

Shama’s office, established in 1984, is the only chartered immigrant affairs office in the country.

“To be an undocumented person in America is to obsess over pieces of paper,” Jose Antonio Vargas explained. “But the stories of undocumented New Yorkers transcend documents and papers, [the stories] are linked to everyone in this room through a shared American history bounded by questions like where did your family come from, why did you migrate to the United States, how do you define American?”

In this city, home to an estimated half a million undocumented immigrants, the answer to that question would come from the mouths of emigrés from 60 countries who speak over 181 languages.

 

Progress on the rise

Recent steps forward in immigration reform have had impacts large and small on these “Americans in all but papers,” from a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles, to being inspired to vote for the first time.

Getting a driver’s license for the first time “was so exciting,” Cesar Vargas said.

“I kind of experienced the teenage excitement of going to the DMV at 29 years old,” he said.

Cesar Vargas’ family is, like many immigrant families, “mixed status”: half are citizens and half are not.

He said this past election is the first time any of them voted, even though many have been eligible to vote in prior elections. They were motivated by the immigration debate, he said.

And he had a message for Republicans: “My family considers themselves a little bit conservative, and they actually said, ‘We would have voted for a Republican candidate, but we’re not because of their [immigration] rhetoric.’”

 

Changing history and making Mom proud

Cesar Vargas graduated from the New York City public school system, made his way through both college and law school, and recently passed the bar exam.

Now his application to the New York bar is being reviewed.

“New York has never confronted the issue of whether to allow someone who’s undocumented to the practice of law,” Cesar Vargas explained.

He said the official reviewing his application is “confused but also appreciative” of the opportunity to be part of a historic moment in the state’s legal history.

“My simple and very passionate goal is to make my mom proud,” Cesar Vargas said. “I want her to be able to call up her friends and say, ‘my son is a lawyer.’”

Jose Antonio Vargas also has his mother on his mind, as this year will mark two decades since he last saw her.

“I don’t remember how tall she was,” Vargas mused. “Last I saw her she was really tall and I was really small.”

 

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat


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