Born in the Philippines and brought to the U.S. illegally as a 12-year-old, Vargas describes how he hid in plain-sight for years, writing for some of the most prestigious news organizations in the country, and how he has lived on the move after publicly admitting his undocumented status and advocating for the human rights of immigrants and migrants.
Vargas’ book is...powerful ... But it’s also an engaging read, and a deeply moving memoir of coming of age with the odds stacked against you and not only forging a remarkable life for yourself, but becoming a voice for transformation and cultural change. In short, piercing chapters, Vargas transports us back to his childhood in the Philippines, and the morning his mother rushed him to the airport and said goodbye ... Dear America combines the best of the memoir genre with sociocultural commentary and a fierce commitment to awakening ... He deftly weaves together the personal and the political, and allows us into deeply painful, vulnerable moments that speak to a shared humanity, but also serve a larger story that desperately needs to be heard. He lays bare wrenching intimate details; traces the contours of personal triumphs; invites the reader to consider the facts; and exposes the holes and paradoxes in U.S. racial thinking and histories ... It’s to our great collective benefit that Vargas has brought such voice, uplift and vision to the pages of Dear America, for all to see.
The moments when Vargas describes how profoundly alienated he feels from his own family are the most candid and crushing parts of the book ... Dear America covers some of the same ground as Vargas’s essay for The Times Magazine, as well as his 2013 film, Documented. The weakest parts of the book have him proclaiming a humble altruism that simply doesn’t jibe with the more complicated (and, frankly, more interesting) person he otherwise reveals himself to be ... It was brave for him to come forward as he did, but the motivations for putting one’s name to such an attention-getting, incendiary article are rarely so selfless and pristine. For one thing, by making himself so visible he was not only notifying the authorities of his existence; he was also gaining a form of protection by making himself known. This isn’t to begrudge him any of it. Dear America is a potent rejoinder to those who tell Vargas he’s supposed to 'get in line' for citizenship, as if there were a line instead of a confounding jumble of vague statutes and executive orders—not to mention the life-upending prospect of getting deported to a country he barely remembers.
Dear America serves as the most comprehensive follow-up to three works in particular: Vargas’s 2011 New York Times Magazine essay, 'My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant'; his 2012 Time cover story, 'Not Legal Not Leaving'; and his 2013 film, Documented. More notably, the book is Vargas’s first long-form piece of writing that tries, through the use of vignettes, to distinguish his private self from his public persona ... The book seems to follow in the footsteps of Vargas’s literary idol James Baldwin ... The memoir form, however, allows for pockets of fresh details ... Vargas’s candid prose is inviting to readers who are new to his story, as well as to those who might be unfamiliar with the complexities of U.S. immigration policy ... Vargas’s attempt to answer all relevant questions...is where the book gets bogged down. The memoir, as it veers into reportage, loses Vargas in the multitudes. His justified exhaustion at having to continually explain his and others’ predicaments to people across the political spectrum is palpable ... Dear America is significant for its expression of individual difference within the overlapping experiences of undocumented people.