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Washington Post: He’s 38, an undocumented immigrant and a school is being named for him

  By Jay Mathews Columnist

May 31 MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — On what was once a grassy field surrounded by tall pines, workmen here are assembling a shiny new public elementary school, obscured temporarily by large construction tarps. This is a forward-looking Silicon Valley community. Google, Symantec and Intuit have headquarters here. So perhaps it is not surprising that the school will be named after Jose Antonio Vargas, 38, a former Washington Post colleague who grew up near here and is, at the moment, an undocumented immigrant. I could find no studies of the age of people when their names were affixed to schools. Vargas is the youngest I have encountered who was alive to enjoy the honor. Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale died at age 21, long before any schools were named for him. Notice that I didn’t call Vargas an American. He feels he is one. So do many people who know him, including me. The federal government doesn’t agree. That dispute, plus his talents as a writer, filmmaker and activist, have made him a celebrity among the nation’s 11 million immigrants without legal status. It is stunning that a school district would name a school for him when the national trend is to remove controversial monikers from educational institutions, not add them. Glorifying Vargas also seems to contradict President Trump’s harsh statements about immigrants. Tamara Wilson, a research scientist and member of the Mountain View Whisman School District board, suggested the move. She told the board that Vargas “was taught in our schools and has gone on to accomplish extraordinary things. He represents the many faces of our students, their struggles and their accomplishments and represents a path to achievement.” The school’s student body will be about 40 percent white, 32 percent Asian, 16 percent Hispanic, 2 percent black, 4 percent Filipino (Vargas’s ethnicity) and 6 percent unknown. Naming the school after Vargas, Wilson said, would send “a strong message to any parent or child in our district who is afraid, who wonders what the future holds, who questions their opportunities to succeed.” The vote was 4 to 0 in favor, with one abstention. Wilson has since become the board’s president. Vargas travels often throughout the country despite advice from many lawyer friends that he stay in California. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency “can detain me at any point,” he said. His mother, who remains in the Philippines, paid someone to get him on a flight to California when he was 12 so that he could live with his grandparents. He did not know he was undocumented until, eager to drive at age 16, he applied for a driver’s license. The clerk inspected his green card carefully, leaned over and whispered: “This is fake. Don’t come back here again.” He buried his fears under hard work. At Mountain View High School, writing became what he calls “a way of belonging” at both the school paper and a community paper. He ignored his grandfather’s worries about Vargas’s name appearing in print. He also sang, debated, acted, directed and was elected to represent the school’s interests at the school board. His senior year, he came out as gay. He formed a deep and lasting friendship with principal Pat Hyland when she approached him one night and asked, “Don’t you ever go home?” Such friends helped him pay tuition at San Francisco State University and get an Oregon driver’s license, which did not require a green card or a passport. When he reached The Post in 2004, he seemed to me a whirlwind, going deep into the complexities of his generation. By connecting social media to the aftermath of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, he was recognized as part of The Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize. In 2011, he outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine. That same year, he co-founded Define American, a nonprofit project to facilitate dialogue about immigration. He remains in peril because he is four months too old to qualify for Dream Act protections offered to people brought in illegally as children. It was national news in 2014 when he was detained at the McAllen, Tex., airport. Influential friends persuaded the Obama administration to let him go. As he explained in his 2018 memoir, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” it helped that he wasn’t Mexican. Naming a school after him, he said, still seems “surreal.” He doesn’t know what he will say at the Aug. 15 opening before a crowd of family and friends. I expect he will come up with something educational about the many surprises of his American life.

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