A 12-year-old boy arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport from the Philippines on Aug. 3, 1993. With his passport and green card, Jose Antonio Vargas was in the United States for the first time. He was here to be with his grandparents. His mother, he said, “gave me up to give me a better life.”
But it wasn’t until four years later, when he went to the DMV — sans his grandparents’ knowledge — to apply for a driver’s license, that he first learned a hard truth. He went to the counter, showed the woman his high school ID and green card. Her reaction puzzled him. “She said, this is fake, don’t come back here.”
“My first instinct was that she was lying,” recalled Vargas during his 90-minute appearance at USD’s Shiley Theatre Wednesday night during USD Students for Life’s L.I.F.E. (Living is for Everyone) Week. Instead, it was Vargas who learned he was the one living a lie as an undocumented immigrant.
He rode his bike home and asked his grandfather. Upon learning what Vargas had attempted at the DMV, he was scolded. “What are you doing showing that to people? You’re not supposed to be here.” Vargas, 16, was confused. He was scared, angry and he didn’t know what to do. He was mad at others for not letting him know.
Now 32 and still living in the United States, Vargas’ status hasn’t changed and neither has immigration reform.
“I am, to be blunt about it, the most privileged undocumented immigrant in America,” he said. “While people get deported every day, while people fear for their lives and can’t get into school, can’t get work, I’m here, speaking to a full house of people, and I travel this country talking about immigration.”
Vargas, a San Francisco State University graduate, has been a visible figure regarding issues within U.S. immigration reform, including the Dream Act. While insisting he’s not a leader, organizer or activist, he did come out publicly in a 4,000-word essay published by The New York Times on June 26, 2011 about his undocumented status. He and 35 undocumented immigrants were then on the cover of Time magazine in June 2012 and the magazine named him among its 100 influential people list last year.
The status of an estimated 11 million U.S. undocumented immigrants remains a political hot button in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s administration has also deported more people, 1.5 million in the last four years, than any other modern U.S. president, Vargas said.
Vargas’ survival has been journalism, filmmaking and founding Define American, a nonprofit organization that seeks to encourage more discussions about who is an American.
He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, winning the prestigious award as part of the Washington Post’s team reporting coverage of the Virginia Tech University shootings in 2007. He’s covered everything from diversity in San Francisco to HIV/AIDS in Washington D.C. and the 2008 presidential election.
Vargas kept his status hidden for many years publicly. He obtained a driver’s license in June 2003 that expired on his 30th birthday in 2011. He used it and a Social Security card he initially obtained to get a job making sandwiches.
“I gave my social security number to Subway, the Mountain View Voice, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Daily News, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Pulitzer committee and the White House,” he said. “I was always wondering, ‘why did no one check? Why did I get a pass?’”
“To be an undocumented immigrant in this country is to be obsessed with documents,” said Vargas, who travels with a Philippines passport, a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence and the Time cover story.
The driver’s license was a personal sand of time. “I felt I had eight years to make the most of it and I figured I had eight years to learn to be an American.” Journalism was an essential path. “It’s clear that what drove my reporting and writing ties my work together. It was a desperate need to discover and understand this country that was now my home.”
But his time here hasn’t been without anxious moments. “When I was hired in 2004 at the Post, I freaked out. I thought I had ‘illegal’ tattooed on my forehead. Can you imagine being an undocumented person, one that my colleagues in the media like to talk about while I was sitting right there in their newsrooms?”
Vargas, though, wasn’t completely silent. He confided in a Washington Post colleague, much like he’d done with two high school officials. They each encouraged him, giving him the strength to move forward, to feel he belonged and to live.
“When I told [my Post colleague], he nearly fell off the bench we were sitting at,” Vargas said. “But then he said two things: ‘You make so much more sense now,’ which showed my anxiety was transparent. The second thing he said surprised me. ‘Don’t tell anyone else. Keep going.’ I’m wondering if he might go to HR, but then he said, ‘we’re in this together.’ I owe this man a lot. And I know there are other people doing the same thing, people who understand there’s the law and this thing called what’s right and the right way to do it.”
Through film and Define American, he encourages more “uncomfortable conversations” to increase knowledge and understanding. Empathy, he said, is critical in an ever-changing U.S. and world.
“The U.S. Census, for the first time, indicates that children born to racial and ethnic minority parents represents the majority of all new births. In the 21st century, and for American politics, diversity is destiny,” he said. “A new America, one that talks in many tongues, live intersected lives, looks and sounds different is emerging. For me that’s a good thing. For many people in this room it’s a great thing. But, for the rest of the country, it’s kind of confusing, it’s a little scary and frustrating. To me, we’re living in this tremendous age of intersectionality, an era of empathy. You don’t have to be gay to fight for LGBT rights. You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist. You don’t have to be Latino or Black to care about Latino or Black issues. You don’t have to be undocumented to care about immigrants. All you have to be is a human being.”
— Ryan T. Blystone