KCTS 9 Connects/Immigration Debate - March 16, 2012

CNX: Immigration Debate
  • KCTS 9 Connects

Immigration Debate

We talk with Jose Antonio Vargas on how he hopes to shine a light on undocumented immigrants like him pushing for passage of the DREAM Act.

  • About
  • Jose Antonio Vargas Transcript
  • Luis Fraga Transcript

About the Episode

This week, we discuss the immigration debate, and the story of Jose Antonio Vargas. The former Washington Post award-winning reporter revealed that he has been living illegally in the U.S. since he arrived here from the Philippines at the age of 12. We talk with Vargas on why he made the disclosure and how he hopes to shine a light on others like him pushing for passage of the DREAM Act. We also talk with University of Washington Political Science Professor Luis Fraga about immigration, the Latino vote, and the 2012 Presidential Election. Finally, our Insiders Roundtable weighs in on Washington Congressman Jay Inslee's decision to leave his congressional seat to focus full-time on his run for Governor.

Chapter 1: Interview with Jose Antonio Vargas

Chapter 2: Interview with Professor Luis Fraga

Chapter 3: Insiders Roundtable

Related:
Read New York Times article "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant"
Visit the "Define American" website
Visit Jose Antonio Vargas's website

Enrique Cerna:
What is the status of your whole situation right now after you decided to make this big revelation?

Jose Antonio Vargas:
Um, well, first of all, thank you for having me here. I am in legal no man's land. Yeah. There's no, and by the way, this is a question that I get a lot, that I get asked a lot, which is why don't you just get yourself legal? I wish there was a way to do that. I wish there was some line that I could get in the back of without bumping anybody else off, but get in the back of some line, pay whatever fine I need to pay, do whatever it is I need to do to get legal. But it doesn't exist. The only solution right now is for me to actually leave this country, to leave, this is my home, to leave America, go back to the Philippines, accept a 10 year bar, and then maybe come back. So that's one option. And it's really not an option. So that's why I've decided, you know, to kind of see this through, and that's what we're giving up to be American.

Enrique:
So right now, you've been given a passport, the Filipino embassy?

Vargas:
Yeah, the Filipino embassy in New York, yes.

Enrique:
Which allows you then to have I.D.?

Vargas:
Yeah. So you know, I don't know if people knew this, I got my license here in Washington state earlier this year. So after the article ran, the license got revoked. So everybody out there with a driver's license, like give it a really big tight hug.
[LAUGHTER]
You forget like the privilege of having that thing. And you know, that was my form of I.D., that's how I drove. So now, I'm not driving. Thankfully, the Philippine embassy gave me this passport just so I can travel.

Enrique:
Could ICE come into the studio right now...

Vargas:
Yeah. ICE could come. And I'm on twitter, so I tell them where I'm at all the time.

Enrique:
How come they haven't?

Vargas:
You know, that's a really good question. And I actually think it speaks to the fact that at the end of the day, we really are not willing to face this issue. I wrote the article, you know, look, three years ago around this time, I was in Iowa and New Hampshire, as a political reporter for the Washington Post. I wanted to make a point. And the point is that this issue is completely integrated in our everyday lives, you know, undocumented immigrants like me, we're not just waiting for a job outside of Home Depot. We're not just mowing your lawns. We're in your colleges, in your high schools, we're in your classrooms.

Enrique:
Now you're traveling the country, you're talking about your situation. I've heard you on NPR, you've been on various other television programs doing this.

Vargas:
Right.

Enrique:
But yet there are so many people that are in the shadows?

Vargas:
Exactly.

Enrique:
They aren't under the lights like you?

Vargas:
I mean that's a really good point. And that's why I have to be, when I decided to do this, the question I had to ask myself is, what purpose does this story serve? Because you know, I could have done this quietly. I was actually thinking around this time last year, maybe I should just leave. Maybe I call the BBC, I've always loved the BBC, and tell them, look, I have no papers, I think I'm incredibly qualified, can I just go there and get a job and never come back here? My home. Never see my friend Karen, never see my grandmother, you know, in San Francisco, in the bay area. That was an option. And then I realized that would have been the cowardly thing to do. And then I realized if I did come out publicly with this, how do I make sure that this, that this doesn't become the Jose Vargas show, that it's not just about me? Because you know, at the end of the day, at the end of the day as a journalist, the fact that I've written for these news organizations, you know, I was doing television as a political reporter, right? I'm in a unique position to shed light on a topic on an issue that people, even the journalists, I don't know if you were reading even how the journalists reacted to this. They couldn't believe that one of these illegal people was in their newsrooms. Well, we're everywhere. And this is the point of what we're doing. You know, we have to recognize that we all have a job. Illegal immigration, if there's one point I hope people would get out of what we're doing, illegal immigration is not just about undocumented people like me. It's about American citizens. Because at the end of the day, you know, how much should you actually think your hamburger would cost if you had to pay people the right, you know, minimum wage, to pick the tomatoes and the lettuce, you know? What does U.S. foreign policy have to do, you know, why the middle class in countries like the Philippines, or Guatemala, you know, the people actually think, I haven't seen my mother since I was 12. Did she send me here because she just didn't want to see her kid for the next 18 years? She sent me here because she said she wanted a better future for me. We need to connect the dots. And we're not doing that.

Enrique:
You know there are people out there, and you probably talked to them already.

Vargas:
Oh, yes.

Enrique:
But you lied, you're here illegally.

Vargas:
Yes.

Enrique:
So you know, you're no different than somebody that's jumped the fence.

Vargas:
Actually, that's, people have been asking me, you know, aren't you a little different because you're this accomplished journalist? Well, the guy outside of home depot or your busboy and I, we're all in the same legal limbo land, right? There's no way for us to get quote unquote legal. In terms of the lying, what breaks my heart more than anything else is when I get e mails, I get a lot from undocumented kids, last week, I was just e mailing with a kid who's about to finish law school and can't take the bar because undocumented people can't take the bar, right? He had no papers. And he's saying that now, he's probably just going to have to just try to find a job in a restaurant to wait tables. So let me make sure that I'm understanding this right. We can have a lawyer who can be a tax paying, contributing American citizen, or we can have, by the way, he's been here since he was six years old. My choice was do I, like my grandfather wanted, do I work under the table, or do I check some box, which is the lie, and say that I want to work, I want to pay taxes? I've been paying taxes since I was 18 years old. I've paid so much taxes, I can't vote, I can't collect unemployment benefits. So these are the kind of things, again, that people don't know about. Last year, I don't know if you know this, last year, undocumented people paid $11.2 billion in state taxes. Do you ever hear that figure? And we never talk about that. How many students who have been here since they were kids, how many students have just fallen off the cracks? Now, mind you, I care about any kid of any color, of any ethnicity, of any background, who falls off the cracks. But when it comes to this issue, the sky might fall with the weight of just the hopes and the dreams of all these kids. That just want to contribute and want to live lives, their lives with dignity. And because we are so indifferent or ignorant, you know, I was just saying I was just in Alabama, I spent two hours outside of a Kohl's department store talking to people, you know, asking them about, so do you support this law? What do you think of this law? They supported it, but they couldn't quite tell me what was in it, you know. They didn't know that it's a felony for an undocumented immigrant in the state of Alabama to get in any business transaction with a government entity, which means that people want to get water are afraid to get water. Because they might be found out that they're undocumented. People didn't know that.

Enrique:
We are in a situation where immigration is talked about and it becomes such this hot button issue.

Vargas:
Yeah.

Enrique:
And yet congress can't seem to get anywhere on comprehensive immigration reform. And it doesn't seem that anything is going to change because politically there isn't any will to do it.

Vargas:
And there's no leadership. You know, we're talking about, you know, again, three years ago, I was out there in Iowa covering President Obama, you know. I was in Virginia, covering Obama, President, Candidate Obama would not have won the presidency without the Latino vote and the young vote, especially in Virginia, I know this.

Enrique:
So what now?

Vargas:
What now? Well, the failure of leadership all around is so vast, which is why for us that are Americans, this is going to sound maybe a little too hopeful, but you know, I can't afford to be pessimistic. We are doing this one conversation at a time. One uncomfortable conversation at a time. You know, and not only talking to people who already agree with me, who already are, I don't want to preach to the choir. First of all, that's not why I'm a journalist. I'm a journalist because I am seriously curious to figure out why is it that people think that my existence threatens theirs? Why is it that instead of thinking that people like me don't just take a slice out of the pie, we actually make the pie bigger. I'm interested in getting to that truth.

Enrique Cerna:
How do you see immigration playing out in this election year? We hear already the rhetoric, but do you think that it will make much of a difference in how people vote?

Luis Fraga:
Well, Latinos are very interesting in that when you ask them what the most important issue is facing the country, in general, they respond, it's the economy, it's jobs, when the Iraq war was very significantly, it was the Iraq war. But when you ask them what's the most important issue facing Latino communities, immigration always comes out number 1, followed closely by education at number 2. So to the extent that the candidates are going to bring it up as an issue, there's an incentive for the republican candidate to bring it up to mobilize their base. To the extent that that's brought up, it should push more Latinos than ever to think of supporting the democrat. The big question is, will the president bring it up? And there, he takes a risk. If he brings it up, he runs the risk of backlash from folks that may then use this against him, if he doesn't bring it up and allows the republicans to bring it up as anti immigrant positions, then he potentially benefits by saying to Latinos, look at what it is that they're doing, this is why you should support me. The president has consistently called for comprehensive immigration reform. He's consistently called for and endorsed the DREAM Act. He has used recently his administrative power to try to change elements of the deportations that are occurring, however it is also the case that a higher number of Latino immigrants without authorized status have been deported under this administration than under any previous administration.

Enrique:
And if you ask Latinos about that, they're very angry?

Fraga:
They are very angry. And this seems to be a compromise that he made to try to prevent, again, a backlash against him as being soft on immigration by trying to prove that he's really forceful in forcing our immigration laws. And as a result of that, hoping to buy the space to push for comprehensive immigration reform, what's resulted of course is that his strong position on deportations has not led to opening up any space to try to get compromise support from republican senators and members of the house to be able to pass legislation. They have a right to be very angry and concerned in my view.

Enrique:
And what about the dream act here? This is something that has been there, you know, George bush supported it.

Fraga:
Yeah.

Enrique:
And John McCain supported it. And John McCain supported immigration reform and comprehensive reform, so did George Bush. But yet, nothing seems to happen.

Fraga:
It is apparent to me that a decision was made by the republican party leadership, especially in the Senate, that they were no longer going to take a position or allow certain senior senators, including Orrin Hatch, senator from Utah, who had been supportive in the past. They made a decision that they were no longer going to support the dream act as a way I think of trying to force the president to come out more strongly in favor of immigration reform. It was a way to back him into a corner, to make him vulnerable to that counter charge of being soft on immigration. We see how the president responded. They let him take their position, say he no longer supports it, but as president, I have the responsibility, I don't have the choice as to whether or not I enforce the law, and we can see that it has led to a stalemate, which has meant that Latino families, especially those who are not authorized, are now just as vulnerable as they ever were before. Now, there are some exceptions to that. The administration has virtually stopped deporting citizens who would have qualified under the dream act, has stopped doing that, there has been an emphasis on trying to deport only those who are alleged to have convicted of serious felonies. And that's part of the increase in the deportations that have occurred. So there are some administration changes to try to justify and soften the extent to which it has affected Latino communities, but many people are still fundamentally disappointed within Latino communities.

Enrique:
Both sides, instead of who's trying to balance things out to work for themselves.

Fraga:
I think it's impossible for any objective observer to conclude anything other than that, we have become the political football in the immigration debate. We, meaning Latino communities, have become the political football. No one is presenting a plan that has a high probability of actually being passed by congress. There are reasons for that. If no republican votes will support it, it's not gonna pass. It's impossible to pass the house, be impossible to pass the Senate, depending upon the position of a few moderate democrats there as well. So it means that we become a focus, we Latinos become a focus of attention in the presidential campaign, but don't have an opportunity for resolution of this very significant issue.

Enrique:
About a minute left, though. Time magazine recently came out with a cover story about the Latino vote about Latinos in the country, and saying that they could very well decide this next election. Do you think that's likely?

Fraga:
Yeah. This is a pattern that has continued. In the 2000 election, three states went for their respective winners as a result of the Latino vote. You can make a claim, that's very important to remember that Latinos because of their increased population growth and increased presence in voting, have become a contributor to winning in political margins of victory. They gave the state of New Mexico and California to Al Gore. And Florida went to George Bush, depending upon how those votes were counted. In the 2004 election, two states, California again, and New Jersey, went democrat for Kerry because of the Latino vote. But these states went republican because of the Latino vote, Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada. So there you got this very interesting split. And George Bush got a lot of votes. Now, not a majority of Latinos except in Florida, it was a majority there, but in combination with the white votes that they received, Latinos contributed to the necessary margin of victory. Now, we come to 2008. In 2008, John McCain didn't win any states because of the Latino vote. He took a very strong anti immigrant position. And at least five states went democrat, where Latinos were the critical margins of victory. California certainly, that is now one of the most democratic states in the country because of the Latino vote, Florida because of the Latino vote, went to Barack Obama, but also Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. States that are in play. Everyone expects that now, in 2012, that Latinos would be critical in those same five states if not in more.

Enrique:
All right. It's going to be interesting to see in this election year what all happens particularly with the Latino vote and in coming elections. Thank you for your time.

Fraga:
You're very welcome.

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