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, DefineAmerican.com, 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.