Jose Antonio Vargas for The New York Times: My Family’s Papers

February 12th, 2013

The New York Times
Published: February 12, 2013



WHEN I testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday about being an undocumented immigrant, my 75-year-old grandmother, Leonila Salinas, will be sitting behind me.

Lola (Filipino for “grandmother”) will be seated alongside my aunt Aida Rivera, a mother of five who works in accounting, and my uncle Conrad Salinas, who served in the United States Navy for 20 years. Like me, they were born in the Philippines. But unlike me, they are American citizens.

Filipinos, the third largest immigrant group in the United States, behind Mexicans and Indians, have big families. Mine is no different. Among my large but tightknit extended family of more than 25 people, I am the only one who is undocumented, the sole person in the family without legal papers in America.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are an estimated 17 million people in the United States living in households where at least one person is an undocumented immigrant. Furthermore, about 4.5 million children who were born in this country have at least one undocumented parent.

Exactly how these “mixed-status” families will be included in any type of immigration reform is still up for debate. Nevertheless, they are a byproduct of our broken and byzantine immigration system. Consider my story:

My grandparents emigrated legally from the Philippines after my grandpa’s sister, who married a Filipino-American in the military, petitioned for them. The process took 12 years. Once they finally arrived, they petitioned for their children to follow them. It turned out, however, that residents cannot petition for their married children, so while my uncle, who was single, packed his bags, my married mother remained at home.

This is where I come in. Grandparents cannot petition for their grandchildren, either, but my family didn’t see a future for me in the Philippines. They made a decision to send me, alone and without papers, to live with my grandparents. They assumed I would find a woman and get my legal residence through marriage. But I came out as gay in high school, which considerably complicated matters. Since gay marriage is not recognized by the federal government, which oversees visas, and since I am not eligible for other relief programs, I am the only T.N.T. — “Tago Ng Tago,” or “hiding and hiding,” the Filipino equivalent of undocumented — in the family.

Most immigrants know someone who is undocumented, and that person is most likely a relative. This often-forgotten fact underscores the reality that undocumented immigrants are integrated not only in our communities — in classrooms and churches across America — but also in our nuclear and extended families.

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