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Coming Out As An 'Undocumented' Immigrant
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Last month, my guest made a confession where everyone could see: In the New
York Times Magazine. In his article, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas revealed
that he is an undocumented immigrant. This was a big surprise, since he's
hardly lived his life in the shadows.
He shared a Pulitzer Prize when he was a reporter for the Washington Post, and
went on to write for the Huffington Post and to profile Mark Zuckerberg in the
His mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the
U.S. when he was 12, in 1993, and they had led him to believe he was a
legitimate U.S. resident. But when he was 16, he stumbled on the truth: His
green card was fake, and his family had lied to him.
When he found that out, he kept it secret. He illegally obtained a driver's
license. He lied about his status on some job application forms.
We're going to talk about why he decided to go public and what the consequences
might be. Vargas has started a new activist group called Define American, with
a mission of changing the conversation about immigration.
Jose Antonio Vargas, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS (Journalist): Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: So have you heard from any immigration authorities since you revealed
that you are undocumented?
Mr. VARGAS: No, no. I have not. My lawyers and I have not heard from anybody.
We're just kind of waiting. You know, when I decided to do this, I had to get
myself into a place where I just have to be prepared for anything and
everything. So that's kind of where I'm at.
GROSS: So I guess you got your lawyers before you decided to come out as
Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, well, I treated it like a big story that I was working on,
and so I just interviewed and talked to a lot of people. And, I mean, mind you,
if the lawyers had it their way, I would not have written what I wrote in the
first place, so that actually, it was really interesting. You know, 30 minutes
before the magazine was going to press, I was on the phone with a lawyer, with
one of the lawyers who had been advising me, actually saying, you know, take
that word out.
And I wasn't going to do that, just because I really wanted to write the piece
in such a way that, you know, I'm just one person who had to go through what I
had to go through, and a lot of people are going through the exact same thing.
GROSS: So how old are you now?
Mr. VARGAS: I'm 30. I turned 30 in February.
GROSS: So why did you decide to come out as undocumented now? Did something
change in your life? Was there a last straw? Was there a turning point?
Mr. VARGAS: I mean, last year, when I got the driver's license in Oregon, in
2003, it expired. The license lasted me for eight full years. It expired on my
30th birthday, which was February of this year, February 3rd of this year.
So that was always kind of a deadline in my head, like okay, I had eight years.
Maybe the laws are going to be fixed by then, and that Washington is going to
come up with a solution in terms of, you know, this country's immigration
GROSS: Let me just stop you here. Now, driver's license is important, not only
because it allows you to drive, but because it's your ID.
Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, it's - I needed that license to not just drive, but to get
around this country. And that was my piece - you know, I had never - I didn't
have a passport, never tried to get one. I never voted. The irony, of course,
is I spent two years traveling for the Washington Post covering the
presidential campaign, and I couldn't vote in the race that I was covering.
And back to your point about why the time now, of course, having that eight-
year deadline in my head and the fact that it was approaching, and last year
for me was kind of the peak of my career. You know, like, I had profiled Mark
Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, for the New Yorker. Everybody wanted to talk
to him, and I landed the interview.
I had a film that was based on stories that I did for the Washington Post
turned into a documentary that was, you know, a director and a producer wanted
to turn into a documentary. And the entire time that I was kind of experiencing
this career high, all I kept thinking in my head was: This license is going to
expire. What am I going to do?
And I think I started reading and watching a lot of the stories, a lot of the
DREAM Act activists. You know, I remember particularly reading about, you know,
four students from Florida who walked from Florida to Washington, D.C., 1,500
miles, to lobby for the DREAM Act.
And I'm sitting in my apartment in Manhattan thinking: I was in their shoes
just seven years ago. I had to do something. And the final straw was on
December 18th. That's when the DREAM Act failed in the Senate. I said to myself
- I took a long walk to the Brooklyn Bridge and back, listened to a lot of
Beyonce, a lot of Joni Mitchell and a lot of Rachmaninoff. And somehow, I just
went home, and I said: Okay, this is what I'm going to do.
So the story was published online on June 22nd. Apparently, it was the most-
shared article on Google for like an entire week, and it just got around. You
know, undocumented immigrant, which is not exactly a sexy phrase, was a
trending topic on Twitter.
We had accomplished the goal of making sure that people think about immigration
in a different way. And now it's making sure that it's sustain - you know,
again, that this is not just about my story. This is about stories of countless
- you know, not just, of course, young Americans, but undocumented immigrants
in this country and what we have to do to survive.
GROSS: So even though your story, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," was
Googled a lot and was - not everybody has heard the story. So let's talk a
little about what happened to you.
In 1993, when you were 12, your mother sent you from the Philippines to the
United States to live with your grandparents, who were here legally from the
Mr. VARGAS: Yes, both were legal. Yeah.
GROSS: What did she tell you about why she was sending you to the U.S.?
Mr. VARGAS: You know, being in the Philippines, it was always somehow
communicated to me when I was young that my future was in America. I just never
knew when it was going to come or what that even meant. I mean, all I knew was
that I woke up one morning, and my suitcase was packed and there was a cab
outside, and there I am at the airport, and my mom is saying goodbye. And...
GROSS: Why didn't she come with you?
Mr. VARGAS: Well, at that point, that wasn't really explained to me. But
basically, when I got to the airport, I was introduced to a man who they, you
know, told me was my uncle. I had never met this man. And he was the one that
actually escorted me on the plane. And then I would find out later on, when I
discovered - you know, when I was 16, that I was undocumented, that he was
actually a coyote that my grandfather had paid $4,500 to.
You know, my grandfather was a security guard. He probably made no more than $9
an hour his entire life. And they paid this coyote to get me here. And at that
point, my mother wanted to get here, getting a visa, but she was denied three
times. So my mother - I haven't seen my mother since I was 12, actually since I
left that morning in the airport.
But I didn't find out - you know, I got to America when I was 12, and then four
years after that, you know, like every 16-year-old, I wanted to get my driver's
permit. So I didn't tell my grandparents. I just took my bike, and I went to
the DMV and I sat there, and the woman called me into the booth.
And I show her my green card, which is kind of proof of residency. I showed it
to her, and I remember she looked at it, this woman, she flipped it around, and
she, like, lowered her voice and looked at me and said this is fake. Don't come
back here again.
And I remember riding my bike home, thinking - I was angry. I was confused. I
thought maybe she was lying. But why would she lie? So then I confronted my
grandfather, you know, when I got home. He was in the garage, actually, cutting
coupons. And I confronted him, and he confirmed it. And that was when - you
know, in many ways, that was kind of the beginning of my reporting career, I
Like, I was just really curious, you know, how - how could this have happened,
and how come no one told me? And at that point, I had been in America for four
years. I loved this country. And I did not want to have the jobs that my
grandfather wanted me to have. He just thought, you know, stay under the radar,
maybe work at a flea market, maybe be a busboy at a restaurant, maybe have one
of those under-the-table jobs. And I didn't want that for myself.
GROSS: What did you want?
Mr. VARGAS: You know, I was really lucky. I mean, a year after that, my English
teacher, my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Dewer(ph), introduced me to
journalism. I didn't know what journalism was. She just said that I asked a lot
of questions, and so she said I should go to this journalism camp at San
Francisco State University. It was for free. And so I went.
And I was fascinated by it. I remember, actually, my first-ever - one of my
first-ever interviews, if not the first ever, was with a man named Ron Unz.
Does that ring a bell, Ron Unz?
GROSS: No, no.
Mr. VARGAS: He was - he authored a bill called Proposition 227, which was all
about anti-bilingual education. And he was explaining to me the importance of
speaking English. And I remember, you know, I spoke Tagalog, which is the
language in the Philippines. You know, English was my second language. And I
completely agreed with this man.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VARGAS: I was sitting there thinking: He's right. You know, immigrants in
this country must learn English. And I agreed with the guy. I didn't think I
was going to agree with him, because I thought he was, quote-unquote, "anti-
But I just loved that. I loved that I could talk to people who didn't agree
with me, or I love talking to people who have changed my mind.
GROSS: You had learned - after you confronted your grandfather with the fake
green card, you had learned that he had gotten forged papers for you. You
revealed that in your New York Times magazine article a few weeks ago.
Your grandfather is no longer alive. Could you - would you have revealed that
if he was alive, or would you have not written that to protect him?
Mr. VARGAS: That's a really good question. You know, I don't know. I think
there was a period in time when I was younger - you know, I guess this is what
happens when you're young. You're too immature, and you can't think beyond
yourself - I was so mad at them.
I was so mad at my grandfather. I was so mad at my mother. I was so mad at them
for putting me in the position that I just found myself in. And then, of
course, I got older, and I realized the sacrifices that they made, and I
realized why they did what they did.
And I've always wanted to protect them. You know, even the people in the piece,
every name in the piece that was mentioned - meaning my choir teacher, my high
school principal, my high school superintendent, the guy who ended up actually
sending me to college through a scholarship - all of them, before I used their
names, I cleared it with every single one of them more than twice because I
didn't want to endanger them.
You know, I didn't want to drag them into this mess that I'm in. But to my own
surprise, they said no, please, you know, include me, include me. I want to be
As for my grandfather, you know, I'm not sure. I mean, I certainly would have
asked for his permission. He thought he was doing the best thing for me. Now
mind you, he and I - ever since I told him, you know, when I was a junior in
high school that I was - that I'm gay, our relationship just kind of changed
because, I mean, his solution for me, the plan was work under-the-table jobs,
marry a woman and get a green card.
Well, when I was a junior in high school, this was right around after Matthew
Shepard - you know, I'm sure you remember Matthew Shepard case, when he was,
you know, hung on that fence and he died. I mean, that was really - I think for
my generation, that's a big, big kind of memory for us, for a lot of closeted
kids back then.
I - after that happened, I just came out. So after that happened, my
grandfather was really disappointed in me, because, you know, I basically was
not going by his plan. And I remembered my reasoning to him was, you know, I'm
not going to tell another lie.
It's one thing to live with this kind of lie, to being an undocumented
immigrant. It was whole other thing to marry a woman to get a green card. I was
not going to do that.
GROSS: Okay, so you ruled out a green card marriage. You came out as gay
because you didn't want to live a lie. Yet you were forced to lie about a lot
of things just in order to stay here and be employed here and have a driver's
But you write you convinced yourself that if you worked enough and achieved
enough, you would be rewarded with citizenship. Why did you think that? I mean,
Mr. VARGAS: Doesn't it sound like something like a 19 and 18-year-old would
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VARGAS: I remember actually thinking that. I remember actually thinking to
myself - and, you know, this is where journalism comes in, right. I remember
once when I was younger - I spent a lot of time in public libraries because I
wanted to really read, you know, like really read, I mean, like New Yorker
read, like read long things.
And I remember a quote about journalism being the first draft of the history.
And I remember thinking to myself: What if I write all these stories, like how
can people say I don't exist? And, you know, this is around the time that - you
know, I grew up in California and right around 180, you know, Proposition 187,
you know, kind of the sting of that.
GROSS: What was Proposition 187?
Mr. VARGAS: 187 was, basically, in many circles, called the anti-immigration
bill. You know, undocumented immigrants couldn't get social services, right. Or
this was the kind of time in which some kids actually went to school with their
green cards because they were afraid that teachers were going to ask for their
green cards to make sure that they're supposed to be in this country.
That's the kind of law that's, in many ways, a precursor to what we're seeing
in Alabama and in Georgia and Arizona.
GROSS: Not to mention that bill passed, but it was ruled unconstitutional.
Mr. VARGAS: It was ruled unconstitutional in Georgia, yeah. But whenever I
heard the term illegal alien, once I knew that I was undocumented, I knew that
I'm not illegal as a human being, and I'm not an alien. And somehow journalism,
you know, seeing my name, you know, in print, interviewing Americans, writing
in English, covering things happening in America, somehow it made me feel like,
okay, you know, I'm contributing. I am one of you.
So I convinced myself that I actually thought if I wrote enough articles, if I
got to cover, like, a presidential campaign or something, or maybe if I started
writing for this thing called the New Yorker - because I remember picking up
the New Yorker and not being able to actually get through it - I actually
thought to myself that that would be success, and somehow success was going to
buy me citizenship, that I was going to get it because I deserved it.
And then, of course, that's not the truth. And, of course, last year, by last
year, when I did - ended up writing for the New Yorker, and I was still in the
GROSS: My guest is Jose Antonio Vargas. His article "My Life as an Undocumented
Immigrant" was published in the New York Times Magazine in June.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Jose Antonio Vargas. After sharing a Pulitzer Prize for his
Washington Post coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, writing for the
Huffington Post and profiling Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker, he revealed
in a New York Times Magazine article last month that he's an undocumented
immigrant from the Philippines.
He didn't know he was undocumented until he was 16, four years after his mother
sent him to the U.S.
You know, I think a lot of people have been basically making this comment that
you were working as a journalist, which is about uncovering the truth, yet you
were telling fundamental lies about yourself. So was journalism therefore the
wrong profession for you? Were you betraying your profession by not being
honest about yourself?
Mr. VARGAS: I completely understand that question, and I completely, of course,
have read some of the criticism about this. And the question that I've always
had is: What would they have done if they were in my shoes?
And I think kind of this idea of almost like a false equivalency, you know, I
had to lie to work, to be in those newsrooms. Now, granted, getting hired onto
the San Francisco Chronicle or the Washington Post or the Huffington Post are
not easy things.
Let's leave immigration out of it. Just getting hired onto those staffs and
onto those newsrooms or writing for The New Yorker, those are not easy things.
But I wanted to be in those newsrooms, and to be in those newsrooms, I had to
lie about who I was.
But the work, the journalism, you know, I've written maybe 650 articles since I
was 17 years old. No one has kind of questioned not just the balance or the,
you know, the kind of the work, and I think in many ways, I even beat myself up
I'm one of those people, I've had maybe eight corrections my entire career, and
most of them are, like, spelling-related. I am vigilant when it comes to my
GROSS: Now, when you were working at the Washington Post - you write about this
in your New York Times article. When you were working at the Washington Post,
you told your editor, Peter Perl, about your predicament, that you were
Mr. VARGAS: Yes, yes.
GROSS: And so now he's exposed.
Mr. VARGAS: By the way, I mean, back to my earlier point about this...
Mr. VARGAS: I went back and forth with Peter on this, because I said to him:
You know, I don't need to include you in this piece. My instinct was to protect
him. And I'm so sorry that I had to put him in that spot.
I remember when I first told him, you know, that afternoon in the park, my...
GROSS: Why did you tell him?
Mr. VARGAS: I told him because, you know, I got - it was one thing for me to be
working at the San Francisco Chronicle and being kind of among my support
network, right. I was in the Bay Area, and that's where everybody - you know,
my grandparents were there, my principal, my superintendent and my support
system was there.
I didn't know anybody in Washington, D.C. And I get here, you know, this was -
I got here summer of 2004. I was so excited. I think I got here two days after
I graduated from college.
And then I was here for a few months, and I started thinking: This is really
crazy. Like, what if anybody found out? And it was kind of starting to show
just how stressed out I was. I think some editors in the newsroom - I remember
a woman was asking me why I always look so stressed out. She said that I always
looked so anxious, you know, that I always looked - that I was worried about my
And I remember going back to my desk, and like: Peter, I actually wrote him
email. Peter, you know, we need to go off for coffee. And thank God he agreed.
And so we went out for coffee, and that's when I told him.
And I remember thinking to myself, okay. I didn't know how he was going - I
really didn't know what he was going to say or how he was going to react. All I
knew is that I needed to tell somebody, and I trusted peter more than anybody
else in the newsroom. You know, he had been nice to me. He had been a mentor
when I was just an intern, just the previous summer before.
So I told him. And I remember - I realized telling him what an uncomfortable
position I had put him in. So I apologized for that. And what surprised me was
his response. It was like the humanity in his response. I mean, it still kills
me to this day how this man could just look at me and say: You know, this is
our problem now. I'm going to help you out. It's going to be okay. You know?
You know, he knew that if he would have told the top editors at the Washington
Post, that I would have been in trouble. You know, I might have been deported.
They would have had to fire me. And he thought that I was a promising
journalist, that he didn't want to put me in that situation.
GROSS: So this is an interesting example of how telling the truth to anybody
potentially endangers them, and that might be more so true now because, like,
didn't Alabama just pass a law that - the harboring one?
Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, they did.
GROSS: Why don't you explain the law and how - would that have affected your -
the predicament of people who you told your status to?
Mr. VARGAS: You know, I mean, laws are getting passed in states like Alabama
that basically would punish American citizens who are quote-unquote "harboring
You know, since the federal government hasn't been able to muster or to get
comprehensive immigration reform passed, states are taking it upon themselves
to police and to enforce laws.
GROSS: Jose Antonio Vargas will be back in the second half of the show. His
article "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" was published in June in the
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jose Antonio Vargas. Last
month in his article in The New York Times Magazine, he revealed that he's an
undocumented immigrant. His mother sent him from the Philippines to live with
his grandparents in the U.S. when he was 12 in 1993. His family led him to
believe that he was here legitimately. He stumbled on the truth when he was 16.
But with the help of fake documents he was able to get a drivers license and
use that as ID. He successfully pursued a career in journalism. When he was a
Washington Post reporter, he shared a Pulitzer Prize. He profiled Mark
Zuckerberg for The New Yorker. But everything's changed now.
So if the law stays as it is now, if immigration law stays as it is now, what
are your options?
Mr. VARGAS: That's actually what we're figuring out right now...
GROSS: We being you and your lawyers?
Mr. VARGAS: Yes. I have a team of, you know, lawyers who are helping me out to
figure out what the options are. But in the meantime, you know, this is what,
as I said in the essay, you know, I had gotten a second drivers license and
that would've bought me five years. It would've given me five years to keep
living the way I was living. You know, I could've continued on writing magazine
articles and working for a news organization, but I decided that I don't want
that kind of life anymore. And not just for me but for thousands, you know, of
what, 11 million undocumented people in this country. I...
GROSS: Were you afraid that you were pushing your luck too, that at some point
you were going to be found out and better to just expose it yourself than to...
Mr. VARGAS: There was a part of that.
Mr. VARGAS: I mean people have asked me, you know, was somebody threatening to
out you? Like, no. No one was threatening to out me. I mean I decided to come
forward with it. I just didn't want this kind of life anymore. And whatever it
is that I'm going through, a lot of other people are going through it.
GROSS: So if you could just give us like a short version of what the path to
citizenship would be for someone who arrived in the United States from another
country undocumented at the age of 16 or younger. You know, if the Dream Act
passed - and I realize there's been different versions of the Dream Act and now
there is a House version and a Senate version.
Mr. VARGAS: Yes.
GROSS: But just like what the gist of it is.
Mr. VARGAS: The gist of it is, is you know, it's basically a conditional path
to legalization for somebody who could either go to college, you know,
graduating from a four-year college institution or joining the military.
Basically these are the kind of, you know, contributing citizens that we would
want in this country, right? But basically the ones who want to pursue higher
education and pursue careers.
GROSS: Or join the military.
Mr. VARGAS: Or join the military, yeah, which is a career. But yeah. So this is
not just for everyone. I mean think about how many people in this country don't
pursue college education, right? So these are for undocumented, young
undocumented Americans, undocumented immigrants who would want to pursue
college education and be contributing members, or in the military, and be
contributing parts of society. That's what it would give. But again, it's
conditional. It's not just a blanket quote-unquote "amnesty," which is often
the word that gets thrown around, that it would just be a blanket amnesty for
every undocumented immigrant out there. Well, that's just not the truth.
GROSS: So you started a new organization called Define American.
Mr. VARGAS: Yes.
GROSS: Which you describe is seeking to change the conversation on immigration
reform. What needs to be changed in the conversation, do you think?
Mr. VARGAS: It's really more elevating and reframing the conversation, meaning
that when people say a path to citizenship, the first word that doesn't come to
mind is amnesty. Or when people say illegal immigration, the first thing to
come to mind is Latinos, for example. And I think in many ways what Define
American seeks to do is really kind of broaden the conversation around
immigration and take it out of the ghetto that it's been in.
For example, you know, last year, you know, there's a study just came out of
the Immigration Policy Center that said that last year undocumented immigrants
paid $11.2 billion in local and state taxes. A lot of people seem to think,
most people in America think that undocumented immigrants just take resources
and not give anything back. Well, that's just not the truth. A lot of people
seem to think that undocumented immigrants don't want to assimilate to America
or don't want to learn English. Well, that's just not the truth.
I think everybody can agree that our immigration system is broken. We have not
told the truth about it. We have not come to the table and say, all right,
these other problems - how do we balance the need for enforcement, border
security enforcement, how do we balance that with actually granting some sort
of path to legalization to people who have been here, who are educated here,
who could be contributing society? The fact of the matter is, this country is
not going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. What are we supposed to
do with them? What are we supposed to do with these kids? What are we supposed
to do with them?
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. VARGAS: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Jose Antonio Vargas's article, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,"
was published in June in The New York Times magazine. He founded the new group
Define American with the goal of changing the conversation on immigration
reform. You'll find a link to the group and to his magazine article on our
Coming up, we get the reaction of Mark Krikorian, executive director of the
Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates low immigration and strict
This is FRESH AIR.
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Why Jose Antonio Vargas Should Leave The U.S.
TERRY GROSS, host:
We asked Mark Krikorian for his reaction to Jose Antonio Vargas's story about
life as an undocumented immigrant. Krikorian is the executive director of the
Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates low immigration and
strict enforcement. His books include "The New Case Against Immigration: Both
Legal and Illegal."
Mark Krikorian, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Center for Immigration Studies): Thanks for having me.
GROSS: So what do you think should happen to Jose Antonio Vargas now that he's
admitted that he's undocumented?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, it's not so much that he's undocumented, it's that he's an
illegal immigrant. He has fraudulent documents. He has, he came here not as a
very young child. I mean he came here as a child, there's no question, but his,
you know, he came here as - with an identity formed as a Filipino. In other
words, he came at what was the age, 12 or something like that. That's still
pretty young, clearly, but the moral case that you can make for the Dream Act
or something like the Dream Act, and there is a moral case to make for it,
really only applies, it seems to me, to people whose identities have been
formed here, who have no memory of any other country, who really are, as some
of the advocates sometimes put it, Americans in all but paperwork.
This doesn't really cover a lot of the people that would be covered under the
current version of the Dream Act, including Mr. Vargas. The man has real
abilities and real skills and, you know, he should go home to his country of
citizenship, the country he grew up in for most of his childhood.
GROSS: Do you think the United States should force him to go there?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Sure. I mean he's an illegal immigrant, so obviously you don't
have to arrest the guy. I mean it's hard for him to hide. There's - you give
people like this something called voluntary return. You know, you have to leave
in 90 days or in six months or something like that. So you pack up your things.
You resolve your affairs and you can go home. I mean he's got a skill that's
clearly usable in much of the world, including the Philippines. They have large
numbers of English language media. The man has real skills and real abilities
and he ought to use those in his own country.
GROSS: The argument, one of the arguments on the other side is, look at how
bright he is, how skilled he is, how articulate he is. Why wouldn't we want him
to remain in the United States? Isn't that exactly the kind of talent that we
Mr. KRIKORIAN: But see, the argument, it seems to me the strongest case you can
make for something like the Dream Act, which he's now started an advocacy group
to promote - in fact, his New York Times article really was part of his
advocacy campaign. It wasn't a kind of spontaneous, you know, baring of his
soul. The strongest argument you can make for something like the Dream Act, as
I said, is for people who prudence suggests we should allow stay because their
identities had been formed here, they really are, psychologically speaking,
Americans. Because understand that what we're proposing here is an amnesty. We
are in other words legalizing illegal immigrants at the expense of legal
immigrants who did not sneak in or were brought in illegally into the country,
and that - it seems to me that's a pretty high bar to meet.
And it just doesn't seem to me to say this man has or any person involved here
has certain skills and they'll be able to, you know, they'll be able to earn a
living. They'll be able to distinguish themselves. That's just not, it seems to
me, not enough of a rationale to forgive violation of the immigration laws with
all the consequences that come from that.
GROSS: So if Jose Antonio Vargas were to stay in the United States and to
actually proceed on the road to citizenship, who would that be hurting?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, in any individual case, who knows? This is like to say if,
you know, does any individual snowflake hurt anybody? Well, no individual
snowflake is responsible for the avalanche. And it's hard, there's no way you
can say this person, you can identify this person and do a news story on him,
who was harmed by permitting a particular illegal immigrant to stay. Because
the effects that illegal immigration has is more diffuse, it's on a whole
variety of - whether it's taxpayers, whether it's students who can't get into,
say, a community college because an illegal immigrant under the Dream Act took
that space. So the effects and the harm is very real.
GROSS: What are some of your other concerns about the Dream Act? You mentioned
one. You think that only people who came here illegally when they were infants
or very young children should qualify for the Dream Act, people who didn't
already have any identity as a native of their country. Other concerns?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, the other concerns stem from actually legalizing or
amnestying the kind of people you're describing. In other words, even if we
were to reduce the - lower the age at which a person had to come here first to
qualify, say to age seven, but even in that situation, this is still an
amnesty. You have to be honest about it and I'm for it under certain
circumstances but it is an amnesty and amnesties have two important
consequences. One is they encourage further illegal immigration by sending a
message that if you keep your head down long enough, eventually you or your
children or somebody will be able to get legal status. It serves as a kind of
magnet for new illegal immigration.
And the second effect that all amnesties have is that they reward people who
broke the law. And so the two important things that any Dream Act 2.0 would
have to deal with would be these questions. One, what kind of enforcement
measures would you add to a bill like this? And then secondly, how do you make
sure that none of the adults involved ever are able to benefit from this? In
other words, by being allowed to stay legally somehow or another, being
petitioned for a green card, that sort of thing.
For instance, with regard to that problem, there's really two ways you can
address it. One is you legalize the kids but you don't give them green cards so
that they can become citizenship. You give them some kind of long-term non-
immigrant visa, it's called. In other words, like a temporary visa but one
that's renewable indefinitely as long as you stay out of trouble. That way they
wouldn't be able to petition for any relatives.
The alternative is you change the whole chain migration system with the
categories that we have now so that you would reduce, sort of narrow the
definition of relatives that you could actually petition, that anybody could
petition. The whole point, though, is to minimize the downstream effects and
the downstream rewards that the amnesty would create for adults who really were
responsible for breaking the law.
GROSS: Now, you describe your think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies,
as a low immigration pro-enforcement think tank. What does that mean?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, it means that we think numbers overall, immigration
numbers overall should be reduced. Enforcement is part of that, but it's only
part of it. People often focus just on illegal immigration and illegal
immigration is obviously a significant problem, but our take on it really is
that a modern society has no need for any immigration. We don't actually need
immigration. I mean our land is settled. We're an industrialized,
postindustrial society. And so the question is, we need to start, from our
perspective, start at zero, like zero-based budgeting, and then say are there
groups of people whose admission is so compelling that we let them in despite
the fact there's no need for this sort of thing? And not to give you the long
spiel on it, but that would amount to husbands, wives and little kids of U.S.
citizens, who've never been limited in the past, aren't ever going to be
limited in the future. But that's a lot of people. That's 350, 400 thousand
people right there, handful of Einsteins, real Einsteins, and a modest number
of real refugees who will really never have anywhere else to go.
GROSS: But America is really a country of immigrants. It's a country based on
immigration. My grandparents were immigrants. What about your family?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Sure, mine were too. I mean I didn't even speak English until I
went to kindergarten because my parents, even though they were born here, spoke
Armenian to me and English to each other. I mean, you know, a lot of us
obviously had immigrant origin, but to say that America is a nation of
immigrants is only partly true. We're a, we are partly a nation of immigrants
but a number of things have formed what we are. We're also a nation of settlers
and pioneers. But you know, we don't have covered wagons crossing the Great
Plains anymore. And the idea that immigration, which was an important element
of the second half of the 19th century, informing who we are as a country now
is somehow essential to our sort of sense of self indefinitely into the future,
it just strikes me as anachronistic.
GROSS: I'm sure a lot of people are thinking here's a guy whose grandparents
were immigrants, his family has benefited from all America has to offer, and
now that he's American he wants to shut the door to a lot of other people in -
who are now in comparable positions.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: There are in fact a lot of people in comparable positions to my
grandparents and yours, but America is not in a comparable position. Well, the
difference really is from 100 years ago, is not really the immigrants. They're
really not that different today from my grandparents and yours. What's
different is our country. I mean we have matured as a nation. We've become a
middle-aged country, if you will. And I can say this, having just turned 50
myself. We've outgrown mass immigration. It was an important part of our
adolescence. just as settling the frontier was, but you know, we've left it
An analogy I used in my book â actually, my editor made me take it out so I
always bring it up every time I talk about it, is to donuts. When you're 11
years old, you eat all the donuts your parents will let you eat and they're
probably good for you at that point. When you're 50 years old, you can't eat
donuts like that anymore. There's nothing wrong with the donuts. They're the
same doughnuts. But your metabolism has changed and our body politics'
metabolism has changed significantly so that we need to now start looking at
what's good for our grandchildren, not what was good for our grandparents.
GROSS: I know - I know your group is very concerned about immigration from
Mexico, particularly illegal immigration from Mexico. I don't know if you saw
the article in The New York Times this week that began by saying the
extraordinary Mexican migration that delivered millions of illegal immigrants
to the United States over the past 30 years has sputtered to a trickle, and
research points to a surprising cause - unheralded changes in Mexico that have
made staying home more attractive.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Yes, I did read that, and I think that's part of what's
happening, is Mexican fertility. You know, the number of kids that the average
woman has has declined dramatically. It's about the same as it is for the
United States now. Although when Mexicans come here, their birth rates go way,
way up. We've reported on this in the past. But there's no question that
changes in Mexico are part of why we see a smaller flow, at least for now. But
it's also because of our economic problems, obviously, because of the violence
in Mexico making actually traveling here, especially through the northern part
of the country, much more dangerous, and it's because of, frankly, it is
because of better enforcement here that has led to people thinking twice about
crossing the border, or has led some significant number of people to think
about packing up and going home.
So this New York Times story from this week focused, I think, on one part of
what we're seeing, but just one part. I think they made a bigger deal out of
that one development than it really warrants. I mean my point here is that this
problem has not gone away. It's not something that we're just going to outgrow
quickly. We're going to have a significant pressure for immigration from Mexico
for a long time in the future that we're going to have to respond to one way or
another. And in a couple of years, when the economy picks up more, assuming we
don't run into a real Depression, you're going to see stories, you look back at
stories like this and they're not going to be, they're not going to age very
GROSS: So do you think there should be a Dream Act at all or do you think there
should be a Dream Act but just a narrower version of it?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: I can see an argument for a narrower Dream Act that has various
other things attached to it, like enforcement. Yes, I mean I can't speak for my
organization, but if I were in Congress I conceivably would be able to vote for
something like that. Yes.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Okay. Well, happy to do it. Happy to do it. I always like your
GROSS: Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration
Studies. You'll find a link to their website on our website, freshair.npr.org.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Project Nim': Monkeying Around With A Chimp
TERRY GROSS, host:
Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new documentary "Project Nim,"
directed by James Marsh, who made "Man on Wire." "Nim" tells the story of what
happened to a chimp raised by humans and taught to communicate.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: In the early 1970s, Columbia psychology Professor Herbert
Terrace speculated that if a chimpanzee were raised like a human child in a
human home and taught sign language - because chimps don't have the
physiological apparatus for human speech - then a door would open up to the
animal mind. We'd learn what animals think and feel, perhaps even what they
dream. I wouldn't be surprised if he envisioned a best-selling chimp-penned
novel, or at least a review of a "Tarzan" movie.
Director James Marsh recounts Terrace's high hopes and where they led in his
brilliant documentary "Project Nim." It turns out what happened to Terrace's
chimp subject, Nim, also known as Nim Chimpsky, was the stuff of nightmares -
or a sick farce. From the start, when we hear how Nim is plucked from his
shrieking mother's arms at a research facility, he's more to us than a project.
He has complicated thoughts and emotions. He's practically human. No, hold on,
he's not - and that's a problem too. What people in the film project on this
project says more about them than it does about poor, confused Nim.
Get this: His first human mother, Stephanie LaFarge, a former student and lover
of Terrace's, breast-fed Nim, let him puff on a joint and encouraged his PG-13
explorations of her body as he began puberty. She also worried, as hippie types
tended to do, that Nim's developing language would constrain his animal nature
- an idea that made me slap my forehead, as that's the whole point of the
Nim was actually learning to sign, but there wasn't a lot of formal, organized
research going on. So Terrace brought in a nice, pretty grad student who bonded
with Nim and eventually became his full-time caretaker, and they left the
LaFarges for a roomy Riverdale house owned by Columbia. But that student ended
up sleeping with Terrace and then fleeing the project, and Nim had to bond with
another woman, this time nearly biting off half her face and causing her to
flee. Nim did, however, frantically sign - I'm sorry - as she bled. After that,
Nim was lucky enough to get researcher Bob Ingersoll, an enthusiastic Grateful
Deadhead who stuck around.
(Soundbite of movie, "Project Nim")
Mr. BOB INGERSOLL (Researcher): Chimps aren't human. You have to kind of
understand chimps to be able to understand how to work with them and be with
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. INGERSOLL: I took him out on walks. I didn't bring food. I didn't do the
kind of things that would interrupt the relationship or the building of the
relationship. He, you know, he grows on you quick. He was so charming. I mean
it didn't occur to me that animals had that kind of personality like ours.
EDELSTEIN: As he proved in "Man on Wire," Marsh can stylize his documentaries
in ways that only intensify the raw emotions. "Project Nim" is an artful weave
of interviews and re-enactments and lots of period footage, because much of
what surrounded Nim was deemed momentous - he was even on the cover in 1975 of
New York magazine, under the headline "First Message from the Planet of the
Apes." Each interview subject sits in a chair and recalls his or her
interactions with Nim - and then, when they speak of leaving Nim's life, the
camera travels away from them, often in a way that breaks your heart.
In the second half of "Project Nim," Terrace recalls his disappointment when he
realized that Nim wasn't going to be the Noam Chomsky of chimps and lost
interest, despite the fact that Nim had learned 125 signs. He didn't spend time
playing with Nim. He didn't see the Nim that Bob Ingersoll saw.
Unidentified Man: I didn't care about the language (unintelligible) after a
while. It didn't matter to me. He might not have had sentences or grammar, but
there's no question that there was communication going on, and I saw it
clearly. He talk about the trees, the berries that he found. He liked to play.
EDELSTEIN: Terrace lost his funding along with his interest, and the odyssey
that follows the end of the experiment is devastatingly sad. While it's
tempting to label Herb Terrace the villain in "Project Nim," no one in this
sorry saga is totally bad or good. Terrace was right: Nim opened a door. But
into the human, not animal mind. And we can be a crazy species.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download
podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
3Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.