I could have done a Vargas
About two decades ago, I had the chance to live in Texas as a newly wed journalist. I was granted an F2 visa as a dependent of my husband who had an F1 or a student visa. He was to start his practical training with a law firm after completing his graduate studies in law, and was allowed to bring with him his new wife of four or five days.
Back then, the word “dependent” did not sit well with me since at the time I had been working as an independent journalist for close to five years. I was told that as an F2 visa holder, I was not allowed to work. That was bad news for me because it meant putting my career on hold and venturing to faraway Dallas, which I wrongly imagined, was mostly desert with American southern-type, picket-fenced houses that were remote from each other.
Married to a lawyer who held a passion for the law, I consigned myself to a life of domesticity. I had to be content with doing volunteer work with Save the Children, writing some project proposals because I was forbidden by US immigration laws to do what I knew best: writing news stories. I had to make do with filing occasional reports for a local paper back home about Filipino-American soldiers and their families who were drawn into Operation Desert Storm or the first Gulf War—after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Also about Filipino immigrants who were living the American dream.
But I wanted to write more frequently and more substantively. And I wanted to earn money on my own and stop being a total “dependent.” I realized it was not good for my ego. On weekends when newspapers almost doubled in thickness because of the classifieds and special sections, I hunted for writing jobs and sent out applications.
I got myself a Social Security card, the same small rectangular bluish card that Filipino-American and Pulitzer winner Jose Antonio Vargas got. Unlike his card which said, “Valid for work only with I.N.S authorization,” mine bore a more explicit “not valid for employment.”
Still, I wanted to see how far I could go on just the merits of my writing skills. I wanted to test the limits because I couldn’t quite understand why territorial boundaries curtailed my right to write about what I was seeing from another part of the world.
Why was my life and my career going to be disrupted by a mere change in marital status? Wasn’t America going to be benefitted by a young and productive person like myself, who was intent on not being a dependent or a drain on its social security resources?
I believed or maybe naïvely wished that any potential employer who saw I could write would readily overlook the INS restriction or perhaps go the extra mile to legalize my employment status. I went as far as two interviews and did quite well. I was hopeful that I would get a phone call that would ask me to report for work within days.
But the hoped-for phone calls never came. And I knew everything had to do with the seemingly harmless but damning blue rectangular card.
The Good Life
I was doomed to be a volunteer for the entire time that my husband was doing his practical training.
Each month that he was extended because his American boss was happy with his performance, I cringed a little. When he was offered to stay for another year, my heart skipped a beat. I didn’t bargain for an inverse relationship between his career and mine.
Fortunately for me, he was, as I was, dead-set on returning home.
Other Filipino-American friends enticed us to stay, some even offering “fixes” to legalize an extended stay and a “cure” to my immigration status. They were puzzled that we were turning them down. “Nandito na kayo, babalik pa kayo? (You’re already here and you’re still returning home?)” they asked.
Though clearly having the best of intentions and intent on sharing the experience of a good life in America, they were, however, persuading us to break the law.
As a journalist past my mid-20s then, I was already uncomfortable with the thought of having to do that. My job was anchored on truth-telling and trust. How could I possibly claim to report truthfully on issues and events when my ability to do that was going to be based on fraudulent means? Besides, I had a low threshold for discomfort and unease caused by secrets being found out.
Vargas lied for many years about his true identity. He used fake documents to get around and make his way up the ladder of journalism. His life was one of deception even as his readers relied on the truthfulness of what he wrote. He was for all intents and purposes a walking contradiction. Even a living lie.
Ironically, he was so good at what he was doing, he was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer. I thought I could write well enough but never got the opportunity to earn a salary on my own.
Back in his homeland, life for him was uncertain, while I had a career to resuscitate back home. He has probably earned more as a journalist in the US than I have in all my years as a journalist here.
Raised and educated in the US, he also had an advocacy he wanted to push as an “undocumented immigrant.” Raised and educated here—and only briefly in the US for graduate studies—I too had my own advocacy: better journalism in the Philippines.
He chose to stay, I chose to come back home. Chances are, and fortunately for him, he will not be high on the INS deportation list. Unfortunately for me, with an expired US visa, returning to Vargas’ new home is no certainty.
People, they say, can run on the same, if not similar, path in life and then choose divergent directions when they hit a forked road. I’ve never spoken with Vargas and I don’t know him and his personal circumstances. That he has owned up to his deception of close to two decades is one thing I greatly admire.
For sure, his courage has been rewarded with a personal feeling of liberation. I cannot pass personal judgment on him because I don’t know enough about him.
But for me, one thing is sure: I made the right decision when more than 20 years ago, I was presented the chance to do a Vargas and turned it down.
TAGS: immigration, Jose Vargas, journalism