It was during the naturalization ceremony of my mother-in-law in Los Angeles, when I got my first glance at the immigrant’s American Dream: a packed auditorium of new US-citizens, exhilarated, proud and happy. When I read Jose Antonio Vargas’s article “OUTLAW: My Life As an Undocumented Immigrant” last week in The New York Times Magazine, I saw the unfulfilled version of this dream. In his article, Vargas gives an unexpected face to the more than eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the US: his own! As a successful journalist, Vargas uses his power to challenge the idea of what a US-American is. As much as I admire Vargas’s courage and hope it is not in vain, his claims are neither unambiguous nor unproblematic. On what grounds do they stand? Legality? Practice? Culture? Also, while Vargas intends to move the boundaries of what constitutes a US-American in the authoritative framework of the nation-state, do his claims not reach further? Do they not challenge the nation-state USA in terms of authoritative legitimacy? Following Vargas’s recent video on DefineAmerican.com, I want to take on his plea: “Let’s talk.”
“There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.”
The statement in the beginning of Vargas article shows two problems:
1. The general problem of the USA in sustaining a historically grown, economically integrated and sizable group of undocumented immigrants.
2. The paradoxical life-situation of these immigrants as being part of a social whole, without being legally recognized.
Where is this boundary of recognition drawn? Is it really just a matter of a piece of paper? This is what Vargas claims, as he lays out his argument woven through his life-story. Vargas came as an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. He did not know this until he was 16 when he realized he had a fake Green Card. He still was able to get a high school and college education, work for major newspapers from the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times and win a Pulitzer Prize, while hiding his lack of legal status. This is the societal basis on which he claims being American: as a successful member of society, contributing and paying taxes. But is this really all that constitutes American identity?
Ferdinand Toennies in his famous dichotomy of “Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft” defines society as based on the individual will, constituted through the social interactions this will produces. These interactions create practices, customs and laws that not only govern, but define society. The problem in Vargas’s claim is that by entering society as an undocumented immigrant, he violated a fundamental structure of law, first unknowingly, but later consciously. In terms of legality, can he really claim membership? This is at least questionable, but of course the legal frame of society is moveable. The “Dream Act” (interestingly enough just made one of its occasional reappearances on the legislative agenda) would provide such a legal shift, but as it stands will be rejected again.
The strong appeal of Vargas’s case for me actually does not lie in his claim of being US-American on the basis of society, but rather, community. Toennies defines community as social organization based on commonality. In a very 19th century view of this conception, he specifies it in terms of the nation that this commonality is based, to different degrees, on: territory, blood (heritage) and shared beliefs (or more implicit practices leading to values). The larger communal aspect of the US nation-state is not based on blood (let’s ignore the nativism movement), but on territory, shared practice and beliefs. This is significantly different compared to other nation-states (such as my native land, Germany) that base the community of the nation mainly on blood (or at least did until 2000), which is much more exclusive. Vargas goes through some length to show how he learned, embraced and embodied language and American popular culture, how his life experience, beyond the document issue, does follow the shared practice and institutional education which makes US-Americans (Toennies actually points out that this is an important factor of communal identity formation). In terms of this understanding, Vargas truly is a US-American.
Vargas’s claim of belonging on the basis of community is therefore strong and much less conflicted than his claim on the basis of society. But the nation-state in general is an unfortunately very muddled conception based on both community and society. This becomes pretty clear if one considers again the issue of legality. I would argue that the violation of the legal structure of society has much larger implications in terms of being US-American than Vargas acknowledges. If he were right in his claim that initial legal status does not matter, that only life-practice counts, what does this mean for all the actually documented immigrants in the US? The immigrant experience – especially in the US-case – is a vital part of community, but it is based on the legal frame of society. Through their immigration practice US-society extends its reach across the borders of its territory. The filing of paper-work, waiting for permission, and interviews, are a vital part of the US-immigrant experience – starting before crossing the border. Vargas’s claim to basically decouple the definition of being US-American from the legal status of entry would not only challenge the legal system of migration. It essentially renders an important part of what has been a communal identity-building process for generations of immigrants meaningless.
Vargas’s important claims surprisingly leave the authoritative potential of borders and territory unchallenged: when he wants to “Define American,” he ignores the conception of legality that marks the boundaries of the territory. His whole claim is based on being in the USA, not how he got there. As much as I sympathize with Vargas and as much as I hope that his act revitalizes the debate and leads to change, his critique remains in the frame of the nation-state concept in general without challenging its authority. He therefore just moves the internal boundaries of definition. If one would take Vargas’s claims further, they actually can be redefined as potentialities:
1. On the basis of society: everybody in the world can be a member of US-society. They just have to contribute.
2. On the basis of community: everybody can be a member of the US-community. They just have to share practices and values.
Can these two potentialities only be realized on US-territory? If not, then the concept of the US nation-state is meaningless. If yes, we come back to Vargas’s initial problems, as it just shows the arbitrariness and injustice of the boundaries of territory, especially with existing and tolerated practices of undocumented migration. In trying to “Define American” Vargas implicitly puts his finger on the wound of the general legitimating problem of the nation-state in a globally interconnected world of politics, economy and culture. This is of course a very radical reading of Vargas’s claims, but to say it with his words: “Let’s talk.”