'It’s always been ‘Cesar the New Yorker’'
Mexican immigrant Cesar Vargas has been profiled in media organizations including The New York Times for his advocacy for the Dream Act — legislation which would give legal status to immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16, have resided here for at least five years, earned a high school degree and completed two years of college or military service. Cesar, who is undocumented, came to the U.S. with his mother when he was five-years-old. His dream was to join the military. He repeatedly tried to enlist, but was rejected. He recently graduated from City University of New York School of Law and passed the New York state bar — and now his goal is to serve his adopted country as a military lawyer.
Courtney: When and why did your parents move to the United States, and what age were you?
Cesar: “I was actually five-years-old when I came to the U.S. My father passed away when I was, maybe three. Naturally my mother had a tough time working there, with that kind of climate in Mexico, especially in small towns. She did the most natural, courageous thing, which was to make sure that we were provided for — and that we had the opportunity for education. So my mom decided to go to the United States. And I have older brothers and sisters who came to the U.S. first, and they really helped my mother get there.”
Courtney: What was it like for you growing up in the U.S., and what was it like for your mother to adjust?
Cesar: “For me, the way I tell people, I consider myself Brooklyn-born and raised. New York City has been my home for the past — almost 25 years. So I grew up here, I went through the New York City public school system, I graduated college in New York, attended and graduated law school, passed the New York state bar, and am now in the process of applying to be admitted as a licensed lawyer in New York state. So this has been my home. And it has been definitely a challenge, because as undocumented students we did not qualify for state financial aid. It was definitely challenging and different. My mother, she had to work all throughout her life to support me, in whatever capacity, whatever way that she could. It was definitely a struggle for both of us to cope, not even socially, but to live with the reality that we didn’t have the same employment opportunities. I had to work two, three jobs to pay for college. I had to be in a restaurant, had to tutor, just to make my tuition payment — never mind eat. I understand there are issues for other college students, but I think you can definitely see throughout our lives, us working three times harder.”
Courtney: What does the word immigrant, or migrant, mean to you personally?
Cesar: “I think it’s really about seeking an opportunity to find a good opportunity. This is what Senator Marco Rubio outlined in his recent book — he’s a senator from Florida — that his family also came for a better future, really to find themselves a new beginning, for family, for happiness. So that’s what I consider a migrant or an immigrant, someone who really goes out there for their family for a better future.”
Courtney: Is there any way that you carry your Mexican background with you in your daily life in New York?
Cesar: “New York is so diverse, that yes you do identify with a specific culture, but I think in New York state you have a very different attitude than someone from Florida. For myself, yes I’m Mexican, but I’ve always considered myself a New Yorker. People from other states tell me I speak like a New Yorker; I have the attitude of a New Yorker. I am Mexican, but I don’t think my Mexican culture has affected me in my everyday life; it’s always been ‘Cesar the New Yorker’.”
Courtney: What was or is your ‘American Dream’? I had read in The New York Times that you had always wanted to join the military; was that it?
Cesar: “Yeah, I think that’s still one of my goals that I’m hoping to work now to ensure. Right now, with the present announcement, we do have the employment opportunities. But my goal was, for one, to go to West Point after high school, and that didn’t happen. After college I wanted to go into the ROTC program to become an officer; that didn’t happen either. Right now I’m working to ensure that hopefully there is legal authority that the Secretary of Defense and the president can allow dreamers with deferred action to enlist in the military. And for me, one of my dreams has been to be a military lawyer, and also to be a marine.”
Courtney: You have been featured quite a bit in the media related to the Dream Act. Can you explain how you became involved with the promotion of it?
Cesar: “The way people get involved in the dream movement is really to shed the fear and tell your story of who you are. And who you are not only as an immigrant, but also as an American living — we’re undocumented immigrants. So I got involved because I saw other students really going out there and sharing their stories. Going out there at rallies, at state legislatures, really fighting for their dreams — and fighting for my dreams, really. For me it was enough of being on the sidelines, and I needed to come out and tell my story and really get on the field, at rallies, and call on my congressional members and senators to join the fight. That’s how I got involved. And it was my first year of law school that I really forced myself to go out there, and the first time I told my story it was in front of the Senate, so it was a moment that you need to take on.”
Courtney: So President Obama has announced this new version of The Dream Act — I’ve read that it is not as strong as the actual Dream Act would be, but would have some of the same provisions and potentially affect 800,000 people. What is your opinion of this act?
Cesar: “The president announced it as a very temporary step — the age cap is pretty low than what was in the original Dream Act, and we definitely hope to include more people. But it’s a first step and we’re working very hard all across the country to try to press the president to present the legal arguments, the political arguments — to try to provide the support that he needs — but there’s definitely more to do. And I think that is what the president has said — this is temporary. And we need Congress to pick up the issue, and we have seen in the presidential elections one of the main issues is immigration, and that’s something we want to continue the momentum on, to ensure that the politics and the policy converge to bring both sides together for immigration.”
Courtney: The Supreme Court ruling on the Arizona immigration law has been criticized by some, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, for not repealing the provision that police officers can demand immigration documents of those they stop legally . What is your opinion?
Cesar: “The court agreed that immigration is strictly a federal prerogative — states, no matter how frustrated they are, they need to yield to the federal government. What we saw in the last provision, the provision that allows officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop lawfully, is very disappointing. We do see that as really a discriminatory provision that’s really just going to stop people based on the color of their skin. At least what we saw at the Supreme Court — it’s didn’t uphold it, it just said once it’s implemented, then we can challenge it again. But we’re very confident that we can challenge it again because it’s going to lead to discrimination — and it has led to discrimination lately. Immigration just recently stopped a former governor of Arizona who is Latino. That just goes to show you, no one’s safe from this. But we do hope to see it challenged again based on the fact that it’s discrimination, based on equal protection, and civil rights.”
Courtney: In your experience as a New Yorker, do you think the city is becoming less or more friendly toward immigrants in recent years?
Cesar: “New York is a very different issue, it’s always been the state of immigrants. It’s been fairly progressive on many immigration policies, to ensure there’s access to education, to diverse languages. So New York has been very progressive — at least to me, to my family. Because many of my family members are citizens we have seen New York as a very comfortable, safe place. You also have your pockets where it’s very rural, upstate New York or even Long Island, where we have seen anti-immigrant fervor really targeting immigrants, and Latinos especially. So you definitely have your pockets, but overall New York City has been fairly progressive and fairly friendly on immigrants — that’s completely different than Alabama, Mississippi, or Arizona.”