Jose Antonio Vargas on Coming Out as an Undocumented Immigrant

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Jose Antonio Vargas at a Romney campaign event in Iowa in December 2011. Vargas, who had reported on Romney's 2008 campaign for the Washington Post, was asked to leave the event. (Brendan Hoffman/Prime)

Jose Antonio Vargas didn’t know he was an undocumented immigrant until, at 16, he tried to obtain a drivers license and was told by a D.M.V. clerk his green card was a fake. He kept his secret through high school, college, and several part time jobs. Soon after graduating, Vargas was hired by The Washington Post, where he contributed to the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. In many ways, the young Filipino immigrant had already achieved the American Dream — but he was still undocumented, and still felt like he was hiding.

In 2011, Vargas chose to speak out, sharing the story of his life as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times — including details of using a fake passport to apply for a Social Security card and claiming full citizenship on his 1-9 employment eligibility forms. His “coming out” was inspired by a group of students who walked from Miami to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the Dream Act. The act would provide a path to permanent residency for young people like Vargas, who were brought to this country by their parents as children, were educated here, and, in many cases, know no other home.

We spoke to Vargas about the Dream Act, Arizona’s controversial immigration law, and his own personal status a year after his daring admission.

Lauren Feeney: Why do you think the Dream Act — which was introduced in 2001 and had widespread bipartisan support — been stalled for over a decade now?

Jose Antonio Vargas: The Dream Act was introduced in August 2001 and then the next month, the September 11th attacks hit. After that, Americans started to rethink the idea of strangers and foreigners — and rightfully so; we were just attacked. Everything immigration reform–related just got put by the wayside. George W. Bush — who was a border president — understood immigration and understood the importance of Latino voters and wanted some sort of reform. But in the politics of the post–September 11th world, it just became impossible. I read George W. Bush’s memoir a few months ago, and he says in the book that not passing immigration reform was one of the biggest regrets of his presidency.

Feeney: A month after 9/11, it’s understandable that Americans were concerned about security. But today, most of the anti-immigrant rhetoric is directed at Mexicans, who obviously had nothing to do with the attacks. So why does the Dream Act continue to be so difficult to pass?

Vargas:  Immigration reform is much, much bigger than the Dream Act, and the fact that we can’t even agree on that is emblematic of how common sense and pragmatic solutions have left the conversation, and how partisan and nonsensical our elected officials have become, especially on the Republican side.

Feeney: Since you came out as an undocumented immigrant, have authorities come after you?

Vargas: No one has come after me. It’s been almost a year.

Feeney: Why do you think that is?

Vargas: I’m basically a walking uncomfortable conversation that no one wants to have.

I’m a journalist, so I thought this through very carefully, and I tried to figure out what would happen once I came out. I basically treated myself as a news story. I reported the hell out of it. If it were up to my lawyers, I would not have written what I wrote — certainly not admitted that I committed fraud or broke the law. But as a journalist, our responsibility is to the story. Once the piece came out, I thought the anti-immigration people in Washington were going to come after me. And I know they read it, but then I started realizing — this is too complex for them. When they think about illegal immigration, they think we’re all just Mexicans and none of us speak English and that we don’t love this country. They think of this issue in such simplistic, black and white terms.

But to actually consider the complexity and the humanity in it is beyond what they want to understand. I also thought that at first, the media was going to focus on “Oh my God, he lied. How dare he lie? Vargas is one of us.” And then I was kind of hoping eventually, reporters would forget about me, and think, “Wait a second, how many other people are going through this? If Vargas said he had been paying taxes and Social Security and had gotten a driver’s license and went through school and worked in our newsroom, how many other people are in our offices, our schools, our communities?”

I think immigration is the most misunderstood issue in America. People simply don’t know how it works. They ask me questions all the time like, “Why don’t you just become legal?” or “Wait a second, you’re not from Mexico?” “No, I’m from the Philippines.” “Where’s that?” I’ve actually had people ask me where the Philippines is.

Feeney: If the Dream Act were to pass, would it affect you personally at this point?

Vargas: It depends on what version of the Dream Act is going to pass. The version of the Dream Act that was introduced by Dick Durbin in the Senate —  I qualify for it, because I’m 31, so age-wise I qualify for it. Who knows what Marc Rubio’s version is going to say. What I’ve always wondered is how they decide you’re eligible until you’re 31 years old and not 33? Or that you’re eligible if you’ve been here since you were 12 but not if you didn’t get here until you were 16? It’s just so random?

Feeney: And to think of the lives these decisions are affecting — how many thousands of kids may get written out of the bill with the change of a single digit.

Vargas: Exactly. And the Dream Act is just one part of the bigger conversation, because once you say that this group of young people gets papers — who do you think they go home to? A lot of Dream Act eligible students have parents who are undocumented, or an older brother who is undocumented. 16.9 million households have somebody in the household who is undocumented. The mixed status family. Which I’m a part of, by the way. Filipinos are like the Italians of Asia; I have a huge Filipino family. There are like 30 of us and I’m the only one who’s undocumented. My mom is in the Philippines; I haven’t seen her for 19 years this August. My grandparents who raised me are both naturalized American citizens, and so are all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. I’m the only one.

Feeney:  You can’t get citizenship through your grandparents who raised you?

Vargas: Citizenship can’t be given by a grandparent to a grandson. Only parents or siblings, that’s how it works.

Feeney: You came out as an undocumented immigrant in part to try to garner support for the Dream Act. But you said the Dream Act is just a small part of this.

Vargas: The Dream Act is a great starting conversation. I have some Republican friends (because I lived in D.C. for five years), and we can all agree on the Dream Act. I remember when my story first came out, Patrick Ruffini, who was the online director for the Republican National Committee and had managed George Bush’s online campaign, he wrote on his Facebook wall something like, “I don’t care what you think about this issue, I know this guy, read the story.” So the Dream Act is important because it helps us start a conversation.

Feeney: From there, we have to move on to more controversial acts, like SB 1070, Arizona’s divisive anti-immigrant bill.

Vargas: The most provocative and dangerous part of SB 1070 is the provision the Supreme Court looks like it’s going to uphold, which says that a police officer can stop anybody who they suspect to be illegal. How do you know who’s illegal? How can you tell? The country is going through a staggering demographic shift. Nearly 50 percent of kids under the age of 18 in America are not white. We have to think about how we define American.

Feeney: You recently launched a website,, where you’re asking people to do just that, and to post their responses on YouTube. How do you personally define American?

Vargas: I found out that I was undocumented when I was a freshman in high school. I was 16. At the time I thought, if I don’t have the right papers to be an American, and I wasn’t privileged enough to be born here, then maybe I can just earn it. Maybe I can just work really hard and earn it. And that’s kind of basically what I’ve tried to do. So for me, an American is somebody who contributes to the society, works hard and considers this place home. That’s how I define American.

Feeney: And yet, many people wouldn’t consider you an American because you’re still undocumented. So what does the future hold for you? Do you have a plan?

Vargas: Oh yes. I was just at the Columbia Law School a few weeks ago, speaking to students there, and a Columbia journalism student came up to me and said, “Do you miss being a journalist?” Because, since I came out, I haven’t been able to hold a full time job. I looked at her, and I just started laughing, and I said, “You know, as far as I’m concerned, my career actually just got started. I think I just found a really good story.” You know how journalists are, we’re kind of myopic: once we get hold of a story, we can’t let it go. In this case, I just happen to be personally a part of it.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher said I asked so many annoying questions that I should become a journalist. And that’s what I did, and it’s really saved my life. It’s given me purpose. Every time I see my name in print, I’m like, “Wait a second, they said I wasn’t supposed to be here, but my name’s on the byline, and I’m writing in English, and I’m reaching all these Americans. How can they say I’m not supposed to be here?” So my life, in some ways, right now depends on working hard and being really good at what I do.

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  • Intrepid

    Who is this clown to prevent the United States of America from running it’s immigration system the way it wants to?

    Who is he to hide on the other side of the border when Americans are fighting wars to save the free world, then, when it’s nice and safe, he wants to be an American so he can steal resources meant to feed the poor of America?

    Mexicans are less than 2% of the world. What have they contributed to civilization.

    I as an American Catholic, never received that free education this guy thinks is his to steal as a Mexican.

    What do Mexicans contribute to society. How will they make the United States a better place?

    I was once confronted by my former pastor, who is Polish, who told me that we should all get along and be as brothers.

    I told him “Do you realize that if Mexicans ran the United States during World War 2, you wouldn’t even be here now?

  • << Work at home, $60/h, link

     Early civilizations complained about still earlier ones, much as we do about both

  • Anonymous
  • Seattle

    The Arizona law was written by the prison industrial complex with the help of the same organization that wrote the Stand Your Ground law in Florida.  The Arizona immigration act is not about stopping people at the border it is about building more prisons and keeping the prison industry successful.  The second in command in Arizona is from the prison industry.   Why aren’t we talking about the money behind to law, it is not about “defending” our borders, it is about locking up people and having the government pay for them to be locked up.

  • Pselgee

    I have to look at this law from two perspectives.  On the individual basis, someone who has lived here a lifetime as an American should be able to become legal. 
    On a broader basis people should not be able to cross our boarders and “demand” their rights.  They should be send home.  
    Our Baby Anchor loophole should be changed. 
     Criminals should be sent home, not be given free room and board on the American tax payer.  Teens in gangs should be sent home with the rest of their family.  Drug uses and criminals should be sent home. 
    Colt makes guns, 80% are exported to Mexico and bought by the drug cartels to be used against us.  Colt should be closed down.  Allowing Colt to supply weapons to drug runners is criminally stupid.  Just how stupid are we?
    Work visas can be issued to those who want to pick fruit, then they go home.
    Look at the expense illegal aliens make on schools, prisons, welfare programs, etc.  One estimate was something like $38 trillion per year.
    Failure to handle this problem is detrimental to the country.
    But listening to individual stories, yes, I come away with a more sympathetic attitude.

  • Rose Westwood-Merrick

    Immigration is a complex problem which cannot be fixed with simple rules. I have heard that many illegals are Canadians, but because they look like us and talk like us, they are able to work and go to school here. There is a bias against people who are poor, another race, speak another language, etc. We depend upon Mexicans/Guatemalans to pick our crops, re-plant our forests, clean our hotel rooms, etc. They often work long hours under hot conditions for little pay. I met an illegal who would rather live on the streets in Oregon than go back to Mexico. He has been here since he was 7. His family were migrant workers. He never got much of an education because his Dad make him work in the fields by the time he was 11. He does not have a birth certificate. He is afraid to go back to Mexico because he might never be allowed back into the US. He is now 34, has been in this country 27 years and doesn’t use government aid. His story may be more common than the myths that are generated about illegal immigrants by the grapevine.

  • TheLawIsTheLaw

    Isn’t using a fake passport considered “False Documentation”?

  • Don Liston

    Sorry, Rose but the answers to this problem ARE obvious and understandable. If you came to this country without approval of our immigration authorities, ahead of hundreds of thousands of people who would give their soul to be allowed to immigrate to America, or if you just overstayed your visa, the rules governing use of a visa are also LAWS and people who “stay over” are cheating the American people who elected the people who passed these laws. You are trying to rationalize something that is illegal and are, therefore, an ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT.

  • Sara

    There is no such thing as an illegal immigrant. We don’t call drunk drivers “illegal drivers.” The action is illegal, not the person. It is a civil offense, not a criminal one at that. You are mistaken, there are no illegal immigrants.