Just a Dream: Jose Antonio Vargas on America’s UndocumentedJun 12th, 2012 | By Claire Pritchard
Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written for the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Huffington Post. In June of 2011, Vargas, a Filipino American, wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed his undocumented status. Since then he has become an advocate for immigration reform, and has reported on immigration issues from across the country. His initiative, Define American, aims to initiate a dialogue about the human costs of current immigration policy in America. The Review’s Gunner Hamlyn interviewed Vargas on May 9th.
It has been almost a year since you revealed your undocumented status in the New York Times Magazine. The state of Washington revoked your driver’s license shortly after the announcement. Have you suffered any other legal ramifications?
No. Outside of losing the driver’s license, getting it revoked, nothing has happened. I haven’t been contacted by any level of government, local or federal. Frankly, I like to say that I’m a walking uncomfortable conversation, and that people would rather avoid the conversation because it’s too hard to have and it’s too complex to have. I don’t fit the narrative.That’s precisely why I decided to “come out,” because I know that my individual story, which is like the stories of a lot of other people, doesn’t necessarily fit the image in people’s heads, or the story of who we are or what we look like or what we do.
The Columbia Spectator quotes your remarks to Columbia Law Students, “If you’re under the age of 30, you know somebody who’s undocumented. This generation is going to help solve this problem because they’ve lived with it, they know it. It’s the people in their dorm rooms, in their schools.” Are you in favor of other undocumented immigrants “outing” themselves, as you did?
I’m in an incredibly privileged position to be doing what I’m doing. I have gone through the whole coming out process twice in my life [regarding my immigration status and sexual orientation]; you have to figure out what the right time is for you. I’m advocating for people to do what they need to do to liberate themselves. But before you do anything, talk to a lawyer, figure out what the risks are.
You have to be very strategic about it. I did not just wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to go do this;” I spent a good six months planning it. I talked to a lot of lawyers. I think the bigger questions are: how can you keep growing wherever you are? If most doors are staying shut, how can you find open doors? What are the kinds of allies that you can find? I think those are the important questions.
Absolutely. Unfortunately, I see this trend continuing because people are angry, and they are fearful. The federal government hasn’t done its job. It’s under the federal government’s purview to fix and enforce our immigration laws, and they haven’t. I completely understand why Arizona and Alabama and Georgia and Utah are passing these laws. They aren’t the right kind of laws, and really it’s not the job of the state to have these laws.
Can you imagine if every state in the country had its own immigration law? It would be a very different place. What is at the heart of SB 1070? That a cop can stop anybody that looks to be undocumented or “illegal.” What does illegal look like? How can you tell?
Do you think the fact that individual states are now taking up this responsibility is endangering the conversation about national immigration reform?
I just feel like we are in an all hands on deck moment when it comes to this issue. All I did was tell the truth; I just stopped lying and told the truth. And there isn’t a lot of truthfulness when it comes to this issue; we’re all hiding behind misconceived notions and stereotypes and ignorance and fail to see what the issue really is.
The media has highlighted unintended effects of the laws on agriculture, tourism, and law enforcement. What do you believe are the most pervasive consequences in Arizona and Alabama?
From an economic perspective, Alabama and Georgia have lost millions of dollars in crops not being harvested. Politically, diversity is destiny. Every thirty seconds a Latino in this country turns 18 years old and becomes an eligible voter. That person probably has someone in their life, a mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, or grandfather, who is undocumented. So immigration issues are completely woven into their daily lives.
And there are psychological consequences as well; I can’t even begin to speak to the kind of terror that people have lived with for years under these laws.
You created the Define American campaign, an advocacy group “to elevate and reframe how we think about immigration.” Can you talk about the impetus for and goals of the campaign? What are your current priorities?
When we say “reframe, elevate, and broaden,” we mean that immigration isn’t just an issue that impacts Latinos and Asian people, it impacts all of us. If you’re not Native American or African American brought here through slavery, your family immigrated here from somewhere. There was a time when people immigrating to America from Europe through Ellis Island didn’t have papers either.
It’s really important that we connect the dots when it comes to our own history, and realize that illegal immigration is not just about undocumented people. I have a group of at least ten people in my life, American citizens, who have supported and guided me throughout these past few years. If an undocumented person has at least five citizens in his life who are helping him out, then we’re not talking about an issue that only impacts the twelve million undocumented people in this country, but their millions of supporters as well.
You frame immigration reform as a moral rather than a political issue. And in a 2011 blog post you suggest that the media presents an incomplete and often inaccurate picture of illegal immigration. Do you believe that humanizing undocumented immigrants is the key to reforming America’s immigration law?
Yes. Humanizing people: what a concept.
Humanizing people and hearing their stories is what has been missing from the immigration debate. The debate has been hijacked by a lot of unformed opinions, a lot of fear, and a lot of politicking; it has become political theater. Missing are the real lives, the nuances, the complexities, the grey areas in which people live their day-to-day lives.
Define American is a grassroots effort, but it has gained the attention of some policymakers in Washington, including Senator Harry Reid. Is your ultimate goal comprehensive immigration reform at a federal level, or do you think change will happen on a more gradual, state-by-state basis?
I want change to happen community by community, church by church, school by school. To encourage hard conversations with people you see every day. How do we get teachers talking about this? How do we get teachers to openly talk about what to do when immigration law affects their classrooms? How do we get church leaders to say, ‘they go to our churches, they go to our synagogues–we need to take care of them”?
That, to me, is how we broaden the conversation.
Feature photo: cc/Phil Guest