Jose Antonio Vargas on how aspects of the pandemic mirror struggles of undocumented people

"Right now, the American experience, everything we're going through is the immigrant experience. To me, it's about resilience," the activist said.
Image: Jose Antonio Vargas, an activist speaking out against racism.
Jose Antonio Vargas, an activist speaking out against racism.Jun Cen / for NBC News

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By Kimmy Yam

Activist Jose Antonio Vargas, who's an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, says the current climate feels relatively familiar to him.

Vargas, who founded Define American, a nonprofit that aims to shift perceptions of immigrants, said there are elements to the situation, like "social distancing" from loved ones in their home countries and the pain of separation, that are reminiscent of experiences those who are undocumented regularly confront.

"I think as an undocumented person I always felt unsafe," he told NBC Asian America. "Unsafe and in this permanent state of precariousness that this pandemic has sharpened."

Although Asian Americans have the fastest growing undocumented population, the racial group, as well as the larger U.S. public, continues to have little grasp of these immigrants' plight, Vargas said. He launched a social media campaign, #DearAmericanCitizens, where undocumented immigrants share how they've long lived the "new normal" many others are just growing accustomed to.

He hopes the campaign will humanize undocumented immigrants and get those outside the community to understand the profound strength behind these individuals.

"Right now, the American experience, everything we're going through is the immigrant experience. To me, it's about resilience," he said. "That part of the American spirit is this spirit of resilience. And for many of us, social distancing is not a temporary part of life. It's our reality."

The series features several other undocumented activists from a range of nations, including actor Bambadjan Bamba of "The Good Place," who's from Côte d'Ivoire, and Tony Choi of South Korea. Many participants shared how their status keeps them from traveling to certain states or attending funerals in their home countries to mourn their loved ones.

"I've been social distancing for a long time. Not because there's a plague, but because there's an entire ocean between me and the country that I was born in," Choi says in his #DearAmericanCitizens video. "For nearly 22 years, I've missed out on a lot of things: family celebrations, birthdays, weddings, graduations and, this is the most difficult part, … the funerals."

Vargas said he intentionally included Asian American voices in the project, saying the immigrant movement has been depicted so heavily skewed away from the racial group and wrongfully so. Asian Americans are more than 15 percent of the total undocumented population. From 2000 to 2015, the number of undocumented Asian immigrants has tripled. Because of their status, in addition to cultural pressures from both the East and the West, many have likely been facing pain that the community itself continues to be blind to, he said.

The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate received more than 1,500 reports of coronavirus discrimination from Asian Americans across the country since it launched in March. The New York City Commission on Human Rights recently announced that since February, there have been 248 reports of harassment and discrimination related to COVID-19 in the city alone. More than 40 percent of the incidents are anti-Asian. But because of undocumented Asian Americans’ complicated mix of cultural shame and fear of compromising their lives in the U.S., any hate attacks they are facing could go unreported and unnoticed.

"The hate crimes happening within the undocumented Asian population is so silenced," Vargas said. "People don't want to talk about it. ... It's part of the swallowing, the bitterness, that is inherent to so much of our culture."

Concurrently, Asian Americans' fight for better, proper representation is gaining more momentum. Even during the pandemic, several social media campaigns have cropped up, including #WashTheHate, the All Americans Movement and #HateIsAVirus, that have helped to shed light on and condemn COVID-19-related discrimination. Vargas points to other markers, like the rise of Asian American studies and Andrew Yang's historic presidential campaign, as proof that there have been consequential wins as a result of activism.

It's all important, he said, particularly since much of what binds the wildly diverse Asian American community is the burial of pain and hardship. So much of what the group has endured was unspoken for decades, he said. But now that the group is speaking up, it has also exposed the dire need to have uncomfortable conversations, including those about the erasure of undocumented Asians from the conversation.

"Now that we are verbalizing and we're actually saying the things that were once left unsaid, we owe it to our own shared history to make sure that we are holding ourselves accountable to each other," Vargas said.

He added: "A lot of Asian Americans think of and deal with undocumented people in this country as if it doesn't include them."

Vargas isn't concerned with tapping into topics that feel taboo. Repping Asian Americans, particularly undocumented Asian Americans, isn't a popular move at the moment, but he insists that validation from larger institutions or mainstream groups is unnecesary, as many are built through structures that aren't inclusive of communities of color in the first place.

"Hopefully, all of us are doing our own evaluation of what matters to us. To me, what matters is making sure that I'm very aware of the systems and the structures that are in place so that I can do my work," he said. "We live in a country in which white supremacist circles — both in conservative and progressive circles — that's the norm. So always I'm asking myself, how am I disrupting that? How do I not just surrender to that?"

As he looks to the future of Asian America, Vargas speaks about the importance of proactive action after identifying gaps. In regard to coronavirus racism, his organization has urged people to sign a pledge practicing citizenship and "claim America for all of us." Collective action is fundamental to the undocumented identity.

"Part of the reality that undocumented immigrants understand that most Americans don't understand about us is that undocumented immigrants and undocumented workers insist on this togetherness," he said. "That we need each other. That we actually share a space in a land."

This story is part of our Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series, "AAPI Frontline," honoring essential workers who are serving their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. Read more here.

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