Defining ‘American’ from the outside

They say that youth is wasted on the young. So too is U.S. citizenship wasted on native-born Americans.

People like me, born on third base when I was born in a hospital in Fresno, California, in May 1967. I hit the lottery when, through no effort of mine, I was born a U.S. citizen. That designation is why I’ll never fully understand the immigration issue. To achieve that, you need to be born on foreign soil.

Jose Antonio Vargas qualifies. Born in the Philippines, the 37-year-old writer, filmmaker, and storyteller has now spent twice as long living in the United States as he did living on the islands. He is also not just your run-of-the-mill immigrant, but an “undocumented” one at that.

Let the record show that Vargas took on that role without his consent. When he was 12, his grandfather brought him to the United States from his home country so that he could have a better life — brought him illegally. The young man wasn’t privy to the scam until, as a teenager, he strolled into the Department of Motor Vehicles for a driver’s license and his permanent residency card was rejected as fake.

From there, Vargas cobbled together one lie after another in pursuit of a college degree and a career in journalism that led to a Pulitzer Prize. His grandfather may have started the fraud, but the young man eventually became a willing accomplice.

Along the way, Vargas co-founded “Define American” — an organization dedicated to answering a simple question that actually isn’t so simple: “How do you define American?”

He has also produced a pair of documentaries, and spoken at several dozen colleges and universities.

But writers are gonna write. So it is no surprise that Vargas has now written a new memoir about his experience as “an undocumented citizen” in a country that tends to run hot and cold on people like him.

America spends half her time embracing illegal immigrants — and the other half pushing them away. We complain that they’re here, and yet we have a tough time imagining life without them.

In his book — “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” — Vargas explains that the experience of living in the United States without documents is all about three things: lying, passing, and hiding. By that he means: lying about your immigration status; passing as an American citizen; and hiding from authorities who might deport you.

I recently tracked down Vargas on his book tour and asked him how his adopted country was treating him. I was especially interested in how living in the United States changed him.

“America has dared me to dream, dared me to challenge what it stands for and who it stands for and why,” he told me.

Vargas likes to say that he was a “Dreamer” before the term was even coined. He missed by one year the age cut-off to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama administration program that convinced nearly 700,000 undocumented young people to turn themselves in to immigration officials in exchange for a two-year exemption from deportation and a work permit.

A criticism of Dreamers — one that I hear from Mexican-American liberals — is that young immigration activists lack a sense of historical context and act like the immigrant civil rights movement began when they arrived in the United States.

Vargas is different. He pays respect to those who were fighting the battle for social justice and personal dignity before he was even born.

“When I get down, I find a lot of comfort in history, in knowing that whatever it is I’m going through, other people survived it,” he said. “Look at Americans like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Larry Itliong, Dolores Huerta, Harvey Milk, and the list goes on and on.”

Those people made contributions. And what, pray tell, is Vargas’ contribution?

“Specific to the immigrant rights movement, I think my contribution is on insisting that we cannot change the politics of immigration until we change the culture in which we see the issue and the people who are impacted by it,” he said. “We cannot talk about undocumented people without without including Black people and White people in the conversation.”

Speaking of conversations, it seems to me that the one revolving around immigration is broken. Vargas agrees. And he thinks it is up to people like us to get it up and running.

“The master narrative on immigration is all screwed up,” he said. “And we in the media have a moral and professional responsibility to fix it.”

Such optimism. Such a sense of duty. Such a strong commitment to make the world better.

I don’t know about you. But that’s how I define American.

Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”