Jose Antonio Vargas’ Coming Out and the Power of Stories over Religious Remonstrances

If you haven’t read it already, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ extraordinary story of his life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States will move you to tears — unless, that is, you have ice water running through your veins. You must read it; it’s quite possibly the most important and telling thing you will read about what America is in a long time.

I just saw Vargas this past weekend at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis. He moderated a panel, “Obama, the Tea Party and 2012: The Role of Race in Electoral Politics.” It wasn’t what you might expect from the title — but more on that in a moment. I first want to highlight a couple of points in Vargas’ story that relate to religious activism around immigration reform.

In his piece, Vargas discusses how his mother and grandparents, knowing that they got him into the United States without proper documentation, believed his undocumented status could eventually be rectified if he married an American citizen. But what they didn’t know was that Vargas is gay. He therefore falls into a category of undocumented immigrants who, unlike straight people, have no marriage-related immigration rights. That is, the American citizen in LGBT binational couples, even if they are legally married in a state or country that permits it, cannot sponsor their undocumented spouse for citizenship. Over 30,000 families in the United States face possible deportation of one partner (many of whom are parents) because of this gap in the law. The group Immigration Equality has advocated for the Uniting American Families Act, which, if passed, would fix this inequity, but the law remains the same: LGBT couples are treated unequally under the law. (A comprehensive immigration bill including UAFA has been introduced again this session in the Senate.)

As I read Vargas’ piece, I could not help but think of Peter Laarman’s excellent essay here, in which he makes a serious and thought-provoking case for why liberal religious arguments fail. In a nutshell, Peter maintains that religious advocates should stop arguing by reducing the Bible to a soundbite, and start telling stories, “because gathering to share our stories clearly does have such impact it’s that much more surprising that such sharing almost never happens at the level of big intra-religious conflicts over economic policy or torture or immigration or health care.”

Is not Vargas’ piece a quintessential example of such a story? Religious advocates — including conservatives — have staged press conferences and rallies for comprehensive immigration reform, based on love thy neighbor or shelter the stranger type arguments. Even when made by conservative religious groups, these arguments fell on deaf ears; as Colorado Democrat Jared Polis told me last year, these remonstrances, as Peter calls them, moved not one single congressional Republican in favor of immigration reform. And, to be sure, religious arguments for UAFA fared no better; they were met with religious arguments against including UAFA in any comprehensive package because naturally some allegedy loving religious advocates can’t find a place in their heart for the gays.

Which brings me back to the Netroots Nation panel, which was not, as one might predict, a dismissive and reductive portrayal of Tea Partiers as racist; instead, panelists Cord Jefferson, an editor at GOOD magazine, Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), discussed what they viewed as the legitimate grievances of their fellow Americans against what Edwards called “an environment of scarcity,” in which the “top two percenters” (in income) “cause us to turn on each other.” The emphasis was not on the extremism of Tea Party demagogues (although I thought that deserved perhaps a bit more emphasis) but rather on how to reach people potentially drawn to the Tea Party owing to economic upheaval, as well as moderates who were fearful of Tea Party demagoguery on immigration. Edwards, for example, maintained, “we make a mistake in lumping all these people who are on the edge with that extremist element,” and “we’re missing an opportunity” to work with those people on critical economic issues. Edwards recounted — yes —a story of a constituent who came to a town hall, and told her that she was a tea partier, but liked what her congresswoman had to say.

At one point, during the question and answer session, there was a discussion about how to talk about race; Edwards said that frequently progressives speak “in their own code,” which “sends people away” rather than “draw[ing] them in.” She added, “I want to make sure we’re using language to draw people in who share the same concerns about declining jobs and opportunity.” Edwards was reacting to someone in the audience bringing up the term “white privilege;” Edwards, who is African-American, cautioned that when people of color use that terminology, it tends to drive away white people. Vargas, moderating, interjected, “White people have to talk to white people about white privilege.”

More stories. Vargas told his today and launched his new site Define American. With his example, there will be more stories.