May God grant that the confession of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, an illegal immigrant, will awaken the conscience of the nation to the wickedness of immigration restrictions. One of the aspects of the experience of being an illegal immigrant that Vargas writes about is:
But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.
The things he says he did that were "wrong and unlawful" are of two kinds. First, he worked using a fake Social Security number:
The “uncle” who brought me here turned out to be a coyote, not a relative, my grandfather later explained. Lolo scraped together enough money — I eventually learned it was $4,500, a huge sum for him — to pay him to smuggle me here under a fake name and fake passport. (I never saw the passport again after the flight and have always assumed that the coyote kept it.) After I arrived in America, Lolo obtained a new fake Filipino passport, in my real name this time, adorned with a fake student visa, in addition to the fraudulent green card.
Using the fake passport, we went to the local Social Security Administration office and applied for a Social Security number and card. It was, I remember, a quick visit. When the card came in the mail, it had my full, real name, but it also clearly stated: “Valid for work only with I.N.S. authorization.”
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...
For more than a decade of getting part-time and full-time jobs, employers have rarely asked to check my original Social Security card. When they did, I showed the photocopied version, which they accepted. Over time, I also began checking the citizenship box on my federal I-9 employment eligibility forms. (Claiming full citizenship was actually easier than declaring permanent resident “green card” status, which would have required me to provide an alien registration number.)
This deceit never got easier. The more I did it, the more I felt like an impostor, the more guilt I carried — and the more I worried that I would get caught. But I kept doing it. I needed to live and survive on my own, and I decided this was the way.
Second, he told lies to various friends and other people about himself:
After a choir rehearsal during my junior year, Jill Denny, the choir director, told me she was considering a Japan trip for our singing group. I told her I couldn’t afford it, but she said we’d figure out a way. I hesitated, and then decided to tell her the truth. “It’s not really the money,” I remember saying. “I don’t have the right passport.” When she assured me we’d get the proper documents, I finally told her. “I can’t get the right passport,” I said. “I’m not supposed to be here.”...
But the real reason was, after so many years of trying to be a part of the system, of focusing all my energy on my professional life, I learned that no amount of professional success would solve my problem or ease the sense of loss and displacement I felt. I lied to a friend about why I couldn’t take a weekend trip to Mexico. Another time I concocted an excuse for why I couldn’t go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Switzerland.
Now, I certainly wouldn't judge any illegal immigrant who lies to personal friends when the stakes are this high. Still, if the question is posed in a general, abstract way, I would say that the standard to live by is never to tell any lies at all. I could be wrong and particular situations-- what if a life is the only way to save Anne Frank from the Gestapo?-- are so hard that I'd just refuse to answer, or say, "let's hope that doesn't happen." But I would not consent to formulating a set of exceptions to the no-lying principle, though I have, alas, told quite a few lies myself. (I don't remember any specific ones off the top of my head but I remember having done it.)
However, I think using a fake Social Security card is fine. Lying to a machine, or to an impersonal bureaucracy, is different than lying to a human being. I was applying for insurance the other day and one of the company's agents advise me to put false information so that I could get through the form. I constantly order something, and there will be a box that says "I have read the terms and conditions of the agreement," or something like that, and I haven't done so, but I still check the box. I don't feel guilty, and I don't intend to stop doing it; there's just nothing wrong with it. Maybe it would be better if pointless legalese didn't trap people into signing so many things they don't have time to read and couldn't understand anyway, but you can't live without doing that, and it isn't really lying. Systems can get detached from the human content of language. Likewise with Social Security cards. I don't think Vargas needs to feel guilty about that one.
Indeed, using a fake Social Security card means paying taxes without thereby becoming qualified for benefits. If anything, it's a generous action.