Telling human-centered stories about immigration can create change

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“Migration is the most natural thing people do, the root of how civilizations, nation-states, and countries were established. The difference, however, is that when white people move, then and now, it’s seen as courageous and necessary, celebrated in history books. Yet when people of color move, legally or illegally, the migration itself is subjected to question of legality. Is it a crime? Will they assimilate? When will they stop?”

I recently finished Jose Antonio Vargas’ book Dear America and I can’t believe it took me as long as it did to get around to reading it.

When he was twelve, Jose Antonio Vargas was sent on a flight to California with his uncle to stay with his grandparents. He expected his mom in the Philippines to follow shortly afterwards. That never happened. It wasn’t until a bit later in life that he discovered the person wasn’t his uncle. And that he wasn’t in the United States legally.

After years of hiding, Jose had established himself as a prominent journalist. Then, he came out in public. Nine years ago, he released an article revealing his experience as an undocumented citizen.

I learned about Jose a few years after that, when he was arrested in Texas during a demonstration in solidarity with Central American refugees. I remember seeing him on the news shortly after being released from a detention center holding cell that he shared with young boys from Guatemala.

That same year, he appeared on the cover of TIME with a dozen other undocumented Americans.

Jose’s strength as a storyteller comes largely from his ability to center big issues on people’s shared humanity.

This book made a pretty strong impression on me. As soon as I finished it, I thought, this could be the defining book of the decade. The only other book I felt that had that same thought about was Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. It also struck me as only the second book ever that I’ve read written by a Filipino American.

But I know Jose didn’t write this book just for the sake of flexing some writing muscle. He wrote it because we really need a new narrative when it comes to the topic of migration and his personal experience can help deliver that.

Here’s what Jose Antonio Vargas taught me about the way we approach migration:

We need to focus the conversation on the human experience 

“Humanity is not some box I should have to check.”

One thing that frequently happens during arguments about immigration is that people are quick to dehumanize others.

It becomes so much easier to detain children in squalid conditions, to overzealously separate families, or to fail to create effective pathways towards legal citizenship when you don’t see the humanity of the people affected by those decisions.

Language that dehumanizes migrant families is way too common. Unsurprisingly, inhumane policies shortly follow.

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People may cross a border illegally. But a person cannot be illegal. There is a difference.

I’m not always convinced that the right set of facts will change people’s minds. I mean, facts- statistics, data, and relevant trends are extremely important when designing a policy or program. They’re less effective at moving people towards compassion.

If that’s your goal, one well told story will outweigh a thousand precise statistics.

And telling a story only you can tell does even more.

Jose’s story doesn’t just propose policy. It exposes why that would matter in the first place. It offers a micro level look at how being an undocumented citizen changes daily life.

Dear America erodes the us versus them narrative

“What would you have done? Work under the table? Stay under the radar? Not work at all? Which box would you check? What have you done to earn your box? Besides being born at a certain place in a certain time, did you have to do anything? Anything at all? If you wanted to have a career, if you wanted to have a life, if you wanted to exist as a human being, what would you have done?”

During conversations about immigration, I hear a lot of people ask the question “what should we do?” When we answer the question, we usually answer as if we were deciding for the U.S. Government. This shows that our default setting is to think of the issue from that perspective.

That’s worth asking. But another worthwhile question almost never gets asked. What would you do from the perspective from a migrant seeking shelter? An undocumented individual? When we leave out that perspective, we’re missing an important part of the story.

Many people often say, “just enter legally!” What Dear America highlights is that for many, there is no clear way to do this. Jose explains that if there were any way for him to have done it in his 25 years in the US, he would’ve done so long ago already.”

One moment that stood out to me in particular came when an interviewer started pressing Jose with the charge- “you don’t deserve to be here!”

Really, what did any of us do to deserve to be here? We didn’t pick the circumstances of our birth. Very few of us can point to citizenship tests or testimonies that can actually answer that question.

The humility to not think of ourselves as better than anyone, regardless of citizenship status is very much needed in these discussions.

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Dear America fights separation by pointing to connection

“When people think of borders and walls, they usually think of land. I think of water. It’s painful to think that the same water that connects us all also divides us, dividing Mama and me.”

When it comes to storytelling, I’m a big believer in looking for the conflict that goes deeper than the obvious. Harry Potter is more about Love versus Power than it is about Harry versus Voldemort. Similarly, the conflict present in the topic of migration isn’t so much about citizens versus outsiders or one political party versus the other.

It’s about separation versus connection.

Jose first highlights the obvious separation that gets created when there are no good pathways for him to gain legal citizenship. He and his mother have only seen each other a handful of times since he came to the United States, and he points out how many families- especially from Central America have been separated in even harsher ways.

However, that’s not the only example of separation created by being undocumented.

The book goes way into depth talking about the way a person’s sense of self can be divided when they live a life of hiding. “This book is about homelessness, not in a traditional sense, but the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in,” writes Vargas. “This book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by; about passing as an American and as a contributing citizen; about families, keeping them together and having to make new ones when you can’t. This book is about constantly hiding from the government and, in the process, hiding from ourselves.”

Then there’s the separation that gets created between us and each other when our perception of migration loses the human element. When we begin thinking in terms of us versus them. When we let labels like legal versus illegal take precedent over what we owe to each other as human beings.

This book better helped me recognize the need for human centered storytelling in the area of migration. So much of how we relate to the issue comes in the form of statistics and figures and policy- all of which are important, but all of which become less humane when we lose sight of the lived experience.

I’m excited to dig deeper into Define American, Jose’s project to spark a new narrative about immigrants and identity in America, what it means to be undocumented and what it means to be a good citizen.

Philippe Lazaro