By Theri Aronson
On Sept. 26, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, one of an estimated 800,000 undocumented Filipino immigrants currently living in the U.S., shared his life story with the Claremont community in Balch Auditorium. Vargas was hosted by the Scripps Presents series, funded by Chicano Latino Student Affairs, and presented in partnership with the IDEA Initiative. His conversation about his personal journey was with immigration community reporter and Southern California Public Radio spokeswoman, Leslie Berestein Rojas. A brief Q&A from audience members took place afterwards. In addition to talking about his new novel, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, Vargas opened up about personal details in his life, including his immigration status, inviting us all to empathise with him, and the other 11 million undocumented residents awaiting DACA status, or plagued by daily threats from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) federal agency.
In March 2018, President Donald Trump challenged Congress to enact a permanent solution to the “undocumented workers problem.” Although Democrats have fought continuously to hold up federal functions and fight against Trump’s aggressive efforts to detain undocumented persons already in the U.S. , both Republicans and Democrats alike have failed to come up with a DACA arrangement they can agree on. In April 2018, Trump repeatedly tweeted against illegal immigration, and blamed Democrats for Washington’s failure to enact immigration reform. By Oct. 2018, there were 12,800 immigrant children being detained and separated from their families by the Health and Human Services Department under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
These kinds of realities are the reason Jose Antonio Vargas works as hard as he does to advocate for undocumented persons.
“We dream of a path to citizenship and that’s why we are the dreamers. Dreaming to be free in the country we call our home,” Vargas said. “I used to live the American dream when I was building a successful career in journalism, but I was living in a lie because I am an undocumented immigrant.”
In response, Rojas asked, “When did you first learn you were undocumented?”
“You know,” he paused, “I didn’t even know I was illegal until I was 17. After going to the DMV to replace my driver’s license, they told me that my legal status was undocumented.”
Subsequent to finding out he did not have legal status to be in this country, Vargas graduated from high school, and then went on to become the first college graduate in his family. After college, he did what no one expected, and “came out” about his immigration “status,” printing his name on his own newspaper articles instead of hiding away. Vargas was determined to pursue his passion for journalism, and there was nothing that was going to stop him.
For seven years thereafter, and despite having come out, Vargas did not say anything about his status to his colleagues, afraid that they would fire him if they knew the truth. When he applied for jobs at various prominent news outlets, like the Washington Post and the New Yorker, Vargas simply lied about his citizenship. No one questioned, or even suspected that he was not being transparent about his status. He confesses that he was back then, and still continues to be terrified of deportation.
“I am genuinely shocked I have been here this long,” Vargas said in reply.
During his time “in the shadows, hiding, lying, and passing as a citizen,” Vargas managed to achieve great journalistic success. In 2008, his coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech won Vargas the Pulitzer Prize for his Breaking News Reporting. That same year, he went on the cover the presidential election for the Washington Post. In his conversation, he notes that part of what made lying to his coworkers easier was the ardent belief that, through his writing, that he could be the best advocate for undocumented persons. “I always wanted to just want to write my way into America,”Vargas said.
It was upon reflecting on great literary novelists like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin that Vargas felt unexpectedly compelled to open about his truth, and tell the world that he was an American, just without a valid green card or U.S. passport to prove it. He announced to the public that he would be joining the DREAMers campaign as soon as possible, as a way to support other undocumented immigrants who, like him, were brought without papers to the US when they were too young to have a say. His lawyers told him he was committing “legal suicide.” He responded by starting his own NGO and campaign, Define American, in order to “heighten the understanding of what it means to be an American.”
He later revealed, through a New York Times article published in 2011, that the rumors were all true: he was, in fact, an undocumented immigrant without papers, and was gay; he no longer had any intention of staying in the closet about it. Vargas spoke about his journey with great eloquence and strength. Hearing him describe his story so bravely brought tears to audience members, including myself.
Since “outing” himself, Jose Antonio Vargas has gone on to win awards for immigration advocacy in his writing. PEN Center USA announced in 2014 that Vargas would be the recipient of the “Freedom to Write” award. He also has worked to ensure that Define American, his nonprofit aimed at facilitating dialogue with immigrations issues, continues to push for immigration reform, which includes the DREAM Act. In his book, Dear America, which he has recently published, Vargas details his career in journalism, his views on immigration, and his work in legal advocacy.
His story is virtually impossible to believe until you read his book, watch his documentary Undocumented, or attend one of his book tours in person. Yet, however unbelievable his story may sound, it can be a similar story that of the 11 million plus people living in this country who are either telling, or internalizing their own story of hiding in the shadows. More than ever before, it is up to us to listen and learn from the stories others tell us. Vargas’ campaign is currently focused on social media outlets where people can share personal stories about how they define being America. The website also includes a blog where articles about immigration are occasionally published. I encourage site visitors to sign the pledge to stand with Jose Antonio Vargas in his mission to change the way we define American.
Image Credit: Scripps College