NOEL KING, HOST:
Immigration policy is polarizing - travel bans, family separation, defining who qualifies for asylum. But one thing a lot of people agree on - the U.S. immigration system is broken. Last month, the senior editor of the Atlantic, David Frum, wrote a cover story proposing that the U.S. cut legal immigration by half. He talked about the story with our co-host Rachel Martin.
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DAVID FRUM: I don't think most Americans understand how small the benefits of immigration are, the economic benefits, to the legal residents of the United States.
KING: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas is an undocumented immigrant. He wrote the book "Dear America: Notes Of An Undocumented Citizen." He responded to Frum's argument in a lecture at the University of Chicago last night. Rachel talked to Vargas earlier this week, and he told her that a conversation about immigration must also be a conversation about race.
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: A cursory reading of U.S. history will tell you that you cannot divorce race from immigration and from who gets to be a citizen. So when they asked me to give this lecture in Chicago, how do I take, you know, advantage of the opportunity that we have to have this conversation that connects race and immigration and talk about how you cannot discuss immigration policy - who gets to go in, who we bar from coming in and then who gets to be, quote, unquote, "a citizen" - until you connect those two things together. This idea that, you know, how much immigration is too much, well, that's a question that we've been asking since the beginning of this country. And to not talk about race and how that is connected to the issue of immigration, to me, is journalistically irresponsible.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Do you agree that there are, though, real problems with the overall immigration system? I mean...
VARGAS: Oh, my God. Yes.
MARTIN: ...The immigration courts overflowing, huge backlog.
VARGAS: Absolutely. To me, not only is it broken, but this seems deliberate. You know, both parties have had opportunities to actually act and actually insist on some sort of policy change, but that has not happened. Meanwhile, David in this piece and a lot of news sources, you know, whenever they talk about immigrant labor, they leave out significant facts. According to the Social Security Administration, undocumented workers in the past decade have contributed $100 billion into the Social Security fund. I mean, that fact did not make it into David Frum's Atlantic cover story.
MARTIN: This is such a multilayered conversation and issue. But so much of what prevents a change in the immigration laws is the inability to focus on the specific laws and rules. And so to that end, I mean, do you think that the asylum laws need to be stricter?
VARGAS: I think the asylum laws need to be re-examined. I think the immigration system, as I said, is not only broken, I think it's - I don't think that's an accident, right? I think that needs to be really figured out. Like, who should we let in? For me, part of the reason why I came out was to actually help to force these questions, right? Like, for example, I don't know why I haven't gotten deported. I have no idea. I don't understand how other immigrants can get deported, and I can't.
I actually - during part of my reporting on this issue, I actually called ICE myself back in 2012. And I asked them, you know, hey, I came out as undocumented a few months ago. I haven't heard from you. And this was when Obama was president. And in that year, in 2011, he deported 400,000 people. And I wasn't one of them.
MARTIN: David Frum, who is a vocal Trump critic, agrees with President Trump on this idea of getting rid of a rule that says one member of the family who immigrates to the U.S. can then bring other relatives in. Critics of this policy call it chain migration. Proponents call it family reunification. I mean, Frum says that should stop.
VARGAS: What I find interesting - you know, you made that point, that Frum is a vocal Trump critic - this kind of opinion-oriented punditry. You know, I want facts. I want context. I want opinions to be based from facts and context. His story actually asked some hard questions that we have to grapple with - right? - but not using the kind of context and not reporting the kind of facts that we need to grapple with those questions.
MARTIN: It sounds like - I mean, they're very fundamental disagreements with Frum on a variety of levels. But the main problem, as you see it, is just you don't believe his data.
VARGAS: The data, the - then the arguments. Like, I remember when I was reading the piece, you know, the - one of the things that stood out to me was this argument that, in many ways, immigrants are to be blamed for what employers are doing. There's a line that says immigrants are enabling employers to behave badly. So we are now blaming the people that employers hire so they can have labor. Are we then blaming the people who actually don't have power to set the policies and redefine what the laws even are and who they're for?
MARTIN: The title of your book is "Dear America: Notes Of An Undocumented Citizen," though. The word citizen is important.
VARGAS: I actually think it's the unifying conversation that unites all Americans of all backgrounds. Like, what does it mean to be a citizen in this country? So for the people listening who are, you know, U.S. citizens because they were born here, you know, congratulations, right? The accident of birth (laughter). Then what? How do we realize that our equalities are tied to one another? I've been traveling all across the country in the past eight years, talking to everybody who wants to talk to me, including people who want me detained and deported. And one of the things I ask most of the time is, where are you from?
(Laughter) I remember I was at this event at the University of Georgia in Athens. This was, like, in 2012. And I asked this to a young man - because, you know, people of color always get asked where we're from. Like, where are you from from? And so I have this habit now of asking white people where they're from. So I asked him. And he said, well, you know, I'm American. I said, yes, I know. And then he goes, I'm white. Well, white is not a country. You know, like, where are you from?
And then how did your, you know, ancestors get here? What papers did they have? Was there a visa process we don't know about? Was there a multi-billion-dollar enforcement agency like ICE, you know, trying to lock people up because they didn't have papers? And he said, I don't know. You know, what a privilege not to have to know. What a privilege to have to say, oh, I'm a citizen because I'm born here. But all these other people, you know, they got to go earn it. What does that mean exactly?
MARTIN: Jose, thank you so much for talking with us.
VARGAS: Thank you so much for having me.
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KING: That was Jose Antonio Vargas. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and activist. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.