July 5, 2011

On Jose Vargas and Real Immigration Stories

Post by Renee Simms, BAJI Phoenix

Jose Vargas’s moving New York Times’ essay about how he came to the United States as a boy and how he has lived with the secret of his undocumented legal status is exactly the type of immigration story Americans should be telling. It’s a real story, about the personal decisions people make in order to have a better life. It’s not calculated political rhetoric like what we heard from Senator John McCain about immigrants starting wildfires in Arizona. It wasn’t a story intended to trigger fear or nationalism. Instead, Vargas’s essay was a story that we can all relate to since each of us, with the exception of indigenous Native Americans, is an immigrant to this country.

Each American has a story of how his or her family, for political and economic reasons, ended up away from an original homeland. We also have stories about our families’ migration within the United States. If I understand my family’s story of migration, I should be able to understand and sympathize with yours.

As a black woman, part of my migration history is the tale of my father who was born during the Great Depression in the Jim Crow south. He had seven brothers and sisters. His father left my grandmother to raise these eight children by herself. Because poverty, legislated racism and lynchings were accepted facts of life in the early 20th century, my father left Atlanta, Georgia by train the very first chance that he got. Like millions of other blacks from 1915 to 1970, he moved to the urban north.

When my father arrived in Detroit in the 1950s, the city had a strong, post-war economy. By the 1980s when I was a teenager, Detroit was part of the declining industrial rustbelt and a community ravaged by the crack cocaine epidemic. The city that had attracted my father, would provide limited opportunities for me, and so in 1996, I moved west to Los Angeles, California.

I lived in L.A. during the second term of the Clinton presidency and the tech stock bubble. Many people were flush with cash during these years (or had access to easy loans) and a modest home in southern California could sell for $350,000 and upward. Because I was not flush with cash and couldn’t afford a home in California, I eventually migrated to the Southwest and then to the Pacific Northwest. My movement across the U.S. has been influenced by economic opportunities as well as cultural considerations like the racial attitudes within a community. I want to live in a place that is affordable, safe, that is tolerant of divergent viewpoints, that is ethnically diverse, and a place where I feel respected.

Immigration and migration have always been about our human search for a better life. That’s what Vargas’s essay makes clear and what this Times’ article about young blacks moving back to the south also makes clear. People will move to a place that promises a good life.

It’s in this spirit that the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) enters the immigration debate. BAJI seeks to raise awareness about the global economic systems and politics that force people to migrate in the first place. We know that immigration is not a small, national story about wildfires or workers who want to take American jobs. Immigration is a big, human rights story about economic opportunity, and the risks that people will take to attain that opportunity. The risks include separation from one’s family, crossing armed borders, or living in fear like Jose Vargas that someday you’ll be caught.


  1. Gerald Lenoir, BAJI Executive DirectorJuly 13, 2011 at 8:28 PM

    Thank you, Renee for this insightful commentary

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