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An illegal immigrant shares story

Updated: June 23, 2011 2:10AM

I’ve had this idea for a couple of years now to start a Former Illegal Immigrants Hall of Fame.

The concept is to honor individuals who at some point would have been considered undocumented but later found a way to citizenship and went on to make important contributions to our community or nation.

There’s a lot of folks like that out there, you realize, and they aren’t all of Mexican origin, although I suppose a large percentage are. They either entered the country by sneaking across the border or intentionally overstayed a visa. Some were brought here by their parents, while others came on their own.

But eventually they all figured out a way to get back on the legal side of the ledger — as was common in the time before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when that became nearly impossible.

For a while, I floated my Hall of Fame idea in the immigrant advocacy community, explaining my desire to demystify and de-stigmatize what it means to be an illegal immigrant. The idea had sprung from my interviews with currently undocumented Chicago area residents, who too often were unwilling to tell me the whole truth about their lives, understandably so because they knew it would put not only themselves but family members at risk.

Some of those who heard of my Hall of Fame idea were intrigued, but none was in any hurry to nominate the first class of inductees. The problem, I came to realize, is that nobody’s really eager to be identified as even formerly undocumented in this current political climate. It’s an invitation to trouble.

All that is a roundabout way of explaining why I am so impressed by the story of Jose Antonio Vargas, the former Washington Post reporter who revealed this week that he is an illegal immigrant. This guy has guts.

By coming out in this very public manner, Vargas has helped put a face on illegal immigration that is all around us but rarely seen. In the process, of course, he also opened himself to a buzz saw of potential legal problems and certain abuse from the anti-immigrant crowd, some of whom will probably share their thoughts with me today as well.

As he explained in a first-person account in the New York Times Magazine, Vargas was 12 when his mom sent him from the Philippines in 1993 to live with his grandparents, who apparently hired a “coyote” using illegal documents to smuggle him into the country.

It wasn’t until he was in high school and went to get his driver’s license that Vargas learned he wasn’t supposed to be here.

I suppose a good number of readers would think he should have just put himself on an airplane right then and returned to the life he no longer had in the Philippines.

But instead Vargas says he resolved to never give anyone reason to doubt he was an American. If he worked hard enough and achieved enough, he figured, he would eventually be rewarded with citizenship.

And from what I can see, he did quite well, choosing to put his brains and writing talents to use instead of hiding in the shadows of the underground economy as his grandparents might have preferred.

Vargas even shared in a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post. But by that point, naturally, he knew the lie that he was living, having used a phony Social Security number to get his job.

On the day the Pulitzers were announced, Vargas said his grandmother called him, but her first words weren’t to express her pride or congratulations. “What will happen if people find out?” she said. Vargas said he went to the bathroom afterward, sat down on the toilet and cried.

That made an impression on me.

So did another anecdote about how Vargas revealed to his high school classmates in 1999 that he was gay, making him the only openly gay student in his school.

That just shows you what a difficult secret illegal immigrants are forced to keep. It was easier for him to disclose his homosexuality — with all the discrimination that has historically meant — than his immigration status.

I found that particularly telling because I really believe the turning point in the gay-rights movement was when so many people started coming out — and straight folks like me had to start recognizing our own prejudices and deal with it.

If everyone really understood how many people they encounter in their everyday lives are illegal immigrants, I believe there would be a similar awakening — and we could begin to find humane, realistic solutions to our immigration problem.

Maybe someday Jose Antonio Vargas will qualify for my Hall of Fame. I’d like that.

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