My "Illegal" Brother Defines American

Ron Paul brought us together Building 45 of the Google-Plex in the summer of 2007.

It was an exciting time for us poli-tech geeks, as we were several months into seeing just how much could be done with all the internet had given us for something as big as a presidential campaign. A couple of still-small "startups" like Facebook and Twitter were being used by a scrappy team of digital organizers for a young Senator named Obama, and this thing called YouTube was being introduced by CNN to the American public as a way to ask a question of a presidential candidate from the comfort of our homes.

Into the middle of this national digital awakening stepped a 71-year-old Representative from Texas, who, with one appearance on the Colbert Report, ignited a social media sensation ("Raise your hand if you want to do-away with the IRS!") that propelled the Congressman's campaign for almost an entire year longer. In that first week of Congressman Paul being thrust into the American psyche, he was scheduled to be interviewed at Google -- as all the Democratic and Republican candidates for president were that year -- and it just so happened that I was going to be there for work.

There, in the very back corner of the standing-room-only event space, huddled a gaggle of journalists and bloggers eager to cover the interview of Paul by Google's Elliot Schrage (now of Facebook). It was a summer of "technology as anthropology" unlike any in recent memory, and Paul's rise through the social web was a big story. Of course, there to cover the interview -- as well as just about anything related to politics and technology from 2006-2009 -- was Washington Post's rising star Jose Antonio Vargas.

I was a lowly, somewhat-often contributor to the Huffington Post (which had a long way to go in overtaking the New York Times in traffic back then) trying to act like I knew what I was doing. When it came time, Jose pushed me forward and I asked the first question of the Congressman in the media corral.

Jose and I were buddies almost instantly; recognizing in each other a kind of "we're 26 and have had pretty bizarre careers so far that are hard to describe to others" camaraderie. For months we kept running into each other at political and tech events across the country, and I remember thinking: This is a guy who really gets what's happening in this country, and truly cares about it. That's f*ing cool.

I'm pretty sure it was during the South Carolina primary in early 2008 when I was distracted from watching YouTube clips by a 2AM call from a campaign-trailed Jose to ask the critical question, "Dude, I just bought a head-board for my bed. I feel so old. Does that make me old?"

It was that night we more or less decided Jose was the gay, Filipino brother I never had, and I was the white, American-heartland brother he never had. An awesomely-odd couple to be sure.

In June of 2010, Jose and I sat down at a sushi joint just outside of the annual Personal Democracy Forum and discussed what starting a new online media venture together might look like -- one based on open data and new engagement techniques. There were investors and everything! It was very exciting, but we were never able to follow through. In February of this year, I learned why.

My brother Jose is an "illegal alien."

I'm supposed to say "undocumented immigrant," but where I grew up, "illegal" was the vernacular, and it's awfully hard to change habits.

I'm learning that for this issue, our whole country has habits -- almost all of which are unexamined.

When Jose came out to me about his status at a Caribou Coffee in DC -- amidst a band of Mac-tapping, latte-drinking yuppies (including myself) -- all I remember thinking was: but... you're so... so... all-American.

And to me, Jose is American. He just doesn't have the right papers.

Since that moment I've been questioning what it truly means to be an "American." It's hard to imagine being more American born and bred than I've been -- a young, white man born on a farm in Michigan and raised on tailgates and football games in the fields of Tennessee by a 35-year veteran of General Motors.

But are birth and rearing what defines American?

My Filipino brother learned to "speak American" by watching reruns of Frasier and the Golden Girls after being put on a plane to California by his mother at the age of 12. He has tirelessly worked his ass off to prove he was good enough to be here. He is independent; he pays taxes; he's won a freakin' Pulitzer Prize for his contributions during an American tragedy in southwest Virginia.

Which one of us defines American more?

After months of thinking about it, I can't answer the question. I suppose that speaks to why decades of debate have failed to solve the issue in Congress.

In all my ruminations and conversations about immigration in these past few months, three things have stood out starkly:

1) When confronted with the question, "what would you do?" if put in the shoes of an immigrant or immigrant family, few Americans would honestly act much differently than what today's undocumented immigrants are striving to do.

2) Conservative, centrist, and (most) liberal Americans alike are turned off by individuals or groups claiming that they are entitled to American citizenship. (To be fair, most Americans are turned off by people claiming entitlement to most anything, which is why the Millennial generation can sometimes be so annoying... and also many segments of MSNBC).

3) When discussing "what defines 'American'?" with others, the responses are inevitably values-based and focus on things like pride and work ethic. Not once so far have I heard someone say, "'American' must mean a documented citizen" or anything similar.

This is all clearly anecdotal, but very telling. And important, I think.

Two weeks ago, my brother Jose "came out" to the world. He's admitting to, and apologizing for, laws he's broken in his quest to define American. Above all, though, he's doing something that's been missing from the immigration conversation: he's sparked a critical conversation by raising questions.

Personal questions.

Gray, cloudy questions in middle of what have been only black or white answers.

Questions about the way things are in this country, not the way bureaucrats would negotiate them to be.

In the same way technology has anthropologically changed the way our society and our body politic are behaving, so too is our immigration system changing the America of today and tomorrow.

I know the guy well, and there's nothing that Jose covers better than anthropology.

I hope you'll join this conversation he's started and ask yourself, your friends and your family the hard questions our country requires. I hope we can start telling the truth about immigration in this country and start getting past political pandering. There's little doubt from almost anyone that our immigration system is broken, and the only way to solve a problem is to first tell the truth about it.

Help us Define American.