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Pulitzer-winner to talk immigrant status at La Luz

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Sonoma Valley is home to an estimated 3,000 “Dreamers,” young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program who — as children — were brought by parents into the U.S. without legal permission, or overstayed their temporary visas. They study in Valley schools and they pray in local churches, and they do so despite the steady buzz of uncertainty in their heads.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Jesus Paez, 29, arrived in Sonoma at age 5. Today, he says it feels like home “in every sense of the word.” Over the past few years, he has found La Luz very helpful as he navigates the challenges of living in Sonoma as an undocumented immigrant. The center arranged free legal help for him to renew his DACA paperwork last year. He even took part in the center’s recent Latino Leadership Program.

Today, thanks in part to La Luz, Paez has a social security number, a driver’s license and a work permit for full-time employment at a local hardware store, and he pays taxes. He tries to spread the word with his friends who are undocumented that “we have rights” because he, says, many are unaware.

“DACA is not 100 percent secure,” said Paez. “I feel a sense of limbo - for now, I can stay, but there is always a possibility of being deported.”

Writer Jose Antonio Vargas has given a lot of thought to what happens to the human heart when it is unmoored, when a person finds himself living in the place between things.

When years pass in an itinerant state, unable to plan any kind of path with absolute certainty, does it alter a person’s essential core?

He has detailed that “limbo” in his book “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” and he’ll address it for a Sonoma Valley audience on Friday, May 3.

A featured presenter at this year’s Sonoma Valley Authors Festival, Vargas, 38, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist. In collaboration with the Authors Festival, La Luz Center has scheduled Vargas for a free community event where he’ll “share what it means to not be at home in America.”

Sent from the Philippines at age 12 to live with his naturalized grandparents in Mountain View, Vargas didn’t discover his undocumented status until he turned 16 and attempted to get a driver’s license with what proved to be fraudulent documents. He walked into the DMV thinking he was safely at home in his new country, and walked out as an undocumented immigrant.

He confronted his grandparents, who confessed to the ruse. They, and Vargas’s mother, had wanted a better life for him than they thought he could have in the Philippines. He was angry, then scared, and eventually resigned. He buried his secret for the next 14 years.

In 2011, Vargas outed himself in a personal essay published by the New York Times magazine, unwilling to carry on with the subterfuge any longer. “The anxiety was nearly paralyzing,” Vargas wrote in the Times essay, titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” “Maintaining a deception for so long distorts your sense of self. You start wondering who you’ve become, and why.”

Being undocumented hurts more than self-image. Without papers, legitimate employment is not legally possible. Higher education is more complicated, too. But Vargas found work-arounds and a way through, with the anxiety of his uncertain future just part of the bargain.

“It meant going about my day in fear of being found out; rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It meant keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It meant reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I (knew were) wrong and unlawful. And it 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,” Vargas wrote.

Vargas’s memoir is a searing look at the human cost of U.S. immigration policy, but not a political manifesto. “This is not a book about the politics of immigration,” he said. “This book — at its core — is not about immigration at all. This book is about homelessness, not in a traditional sense, but in the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like myself find ourselves in. The book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by; about passing as an American and as a contributing citizen; about families, keeping them together, and having to make new ones when you can’t. This book is about constantly hiding from the government and, in the process, hiding from ourselves. This book is about what it means to have a home. After 25 years living illegally in a country that does not consider me one of its own, this book is the closest thing I have to freedom.”

On Friday, May 3 at 7:30 p.m., Vargas will address his audience in Booker Hall at La Luz, following a wine and cheese reception at 6 p.m. The first 50 people to register for the event at Bit.LY/VargasLLC19 receive a free copy of Vargas’ book, “Dear America.”

La Luz teams up with the International Institute of the Bay Area to provide a legal counsel office at the center. The attorney provides legal consultation services, assistance with citizenship applications, DACA information and renewals. For more information, contact lbrogers@iibayarea.org or call 932.7000.

Marcelo Defrietas, board chair of La Luz, is pleased by the timing of Vargas’s visit and appreciative that the Authors Festival is making his visit possible.

“He is coming into our community in a time of so much uncertainty caused by the present administration,” said Defrietas. “He is the perfect fit to promote a dialogue about immigration and to validate the work and mission of La Luz Center.”

Email kate.williams@sonomanews.com or lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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