Politics & Policy

Jose Antonio Vargas and the End of Driver’s Licenses

(Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
He’s broken more than just immigration law.

CNN chose to describe the recently detained Jose Antonio Vargas, longtime journalist for U.S. publications and legal citizen of the Philippines, as a “symbol of the immigration debate.” The news network aired his documentary, Undocumented, several times.

At the heart of Vargas’s viewpoint — and CNN’s decision to refer to him as a symbol, as opposed to, say, a scofflaw — is the notion that it is unfair to deny citizenship to him, considering his circumstances. Vargas came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 12 and didn’t learn he was in the country illegally until he was 16. Now, in his 30s, deportation would send him to a country he has not known since his boyhood days.

Vargas’s argument — and that behind the federal DREAM Act and other, similar legislative efforts — is that it’s unjust or un-American to punish someone for an action he took, often unknowingly, as a child.

But one big problem with Vargas is that he’s proven he’s quite comfortable violating or ignoring other laws as well, ones that are less disputed or controversial. For example, whatever one thinks of entering the country illegally as a child, falsifying official documents is a different story. Vargas described in the New York Times how he did just that:

When I began looking for work, a short time after the D.M.V. incident, my grandfather and I took the Social Security card to Kinko’s, where he covered the “I.N.S. authorization” text with a sliver of white tape. We then made photocopies of the card. At a glance, at least, the copies would look like copies of a regular, unrestricted Social Security card.

From there it became routine lying on federal documents: “Over time, I also began checking the citizenship box on my federal I-9 employment eligibility forms.”

In the United States, if you want to drive a car, you have to get a driver’s license. This law is in place for several reasons, but public safety is preeminent.

Vargas first obtained a driver’s license from Oregon by faking documents and using a false address; he had friends mail letters to him at an address that wasn’t his home. When his Oregon license expired, he applied for one in the state of Washington, at the time one of two states that did not require applicants to provide Social Security numbers.

He used the false documents regularly; he even used his fraudulent ID to enter the White House grounds to cover a state dinner.

Vargas’s driver’s license was canceled by the state of Washington in July 2011, after he wrote about his illegal or undocumented status the previous month in the New York Times Magazine. He has not had a legal license since. A few days ago, Vargas wrote in Politico: “I do not have a single U.S. government-issued ID. Like most of our country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, I do not have a driver’s license — not yet, at least.” (Vargas has a Philippine passport, so he has photo ID that permits him to get on a plane.)

This means every time Vargas has gotten behind the wheel of a car since July 2011, he has done so in violation of the law — and he’s gotten caught once.

In October 2012, Vargas “was stopped on a highway south of Minneapolis because he was driving with headphones on.” The New York Times reported at the time:

After the traffic stop, he was taken to the Hennepin County jail, where he was questioned by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency known as ICE. He was released Friday afternoon with no immigration charges being filed.

“Mr. Vargas was not arrested by ICE nor did the agency issue a detainer,” said Gillian Christensen, an agency spokeswoman. “ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of public safety threats, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States.”

Agents determined that Mr. Vargas did not fit any of those priority categories for detention, Ms. Schneider said.

In Minnesota, driving without a valid license carries a $178 fine; driving after suspension, revocation, or cancellation of a license carries a $278 fine.

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Vargas hasn’t said publicly how much he drives; he wrote in Politico, “I’ve been traveling non-stop for three years, visiting more than 40 states.” He also wrote in his Politico article that he’s traveling with a camera crew, so perhaps he wasn’t driving on his most recent trip to Texas. Perhaps he uses public transportation, cabs, or Uber, or friends give him rides.

But our laws requiring driver’s licenses are pretty simple: If you don’t have a valid driver’s license or learner’s permit, you’re not allowed to drive. There is no exception in the statute for individuals who have appeared on the cover of Time magazine. There’s no exception for those who have risen to the status of “symbol of the immigration debate.”

These laws are not an expression of xenophobia or white privilege or demonizing the Other. Once Vargas’s license from the state of Washington was revoked — and he commented about the revocation in news articles, so it’s not like he can claim he was unaware of the state’s action — he was not legally allowed to get behind the wheel of a car. He did it anyway.

But Vargas felt free to ignore that law — and, apparently, to drive with headphones on. He also lied to his employers about his legal status, putting them at legal risk. (We’ll skip the irony of a journalist, dedicated to uncovering the truth, lying so regularly.)

The process of entering the country illegally sets off a domino effect of law-breaking — the illegal entry is followed by falsifying documents, lying on official documents, lying to employers, and then driving without a license. Vargas no doubt believes that all of these crimes were necessary for him to live the American dream. At what point does that justification run out?

Vargas has been compared to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks.

One of Vargas’s colleagues quoted him as saying shortly before his arrest, “Our America is better than this. We’re more humane. We’re more compassionate. And we’re fighting for a better America, a country we love but has yet to recognize us.”

Vargas’s “better America” looks a lot like an America where he can ignore the laws he doesn’t like. If he doesn’t think he needs a valid driver’s license to drive, why do the rest of us need them?

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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