Last year, Pulitzer-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas visited the University of Georgia in Athens to discuss immigration reform with students.
His talk came on the heels of Georgia legislature’s passage of a controversial immigration law that included alleged racial profiling and the “show me your papers” provision.
At UGA, Vargas said he had a conversation with a student that has stuck with him as one of the most memorable he’s ever had.
“This young man raised his hand and identified himself as a young Republican. We had a really great exchange and toward the end I asked him where he was from. He said, ‘What do you mean? I’m American.’ I asked him again, though, where he was from. He goes, ‘I’m white.’ But white is not a place. I asked him again where he was from and he didn’t know,” Vargas said.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is what the immigration reform conversation is all about. Where are we from? We all come from somewhere. But some people think the country only belongs to them,” he said.
Vargas returns to Georgia to attend his first Creating Change Conference, the national LGBT equality gathering, in Atlanta Jan. 23-27. On Jan. 26 he will lead a discussion on immigration reform with a panel of Dream activists, a group of young people working to pass the federal Dream Act that will allow minors brought to the U.S. to become legal citizens.
YEP, I’m undocumented
Vargas was born in the Philippines in 1981. In 1993, when he was 12, his mother put him on an airplane with a man he was told was his uncle and he moved to the U.S. to live with his grandparents in California. He went to school and began his life as an American.
When he was 16, he rode his bike to the DMV seeking a driver license and presented his green card. The clerk told him his ID was a fake and Vargas learned the truth — he was an undocumented immigrant. His grandparents told the young Vargas to keep this part about himself a secret. And so he did.
When he was 17 and a junior in high school, his class watched a documentary about Harvey Milk. After the film, Vargas raised his hand and announced he was gay. Coming out of this closet allowed Vargas to thrive as a student and leader on his campus where he was the only openly gay student.
He pursued a career in journalism and eventually landed a job at the Washington Post. It was there where he was part of a team that received a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.
But remaining in the closet about his undocumented status weighed on him. Vargas was forced to lie to get a driver’s license, a Social Security card and eventually it became easier to simply mark on forms he was a U.S. citizen.
As a reporter, though, he watched with keen interest the world around him — the young Dreamers coming out, proclaiming publicly they were undocumented and they were proud. They were Americans.
In 2011, Vargas came out of the closet again with a story in the New York Times informing the world he is an undocumented immigrant.
Last year, he and other Dream activists graced the cover of Time magazine for a cover story he wrote titled, “We Are Americans* (*Just not legally)” and he coined the term “undocumented American.”
Vargas said when that cover photo was being taken, he was thinking of Ellen DeGeneres and her Time cover photo with the headline, “Yep, I’m gay.”
And he was proud.
‘Connect the dots’
Vargas still faces the real possibility of being deported because he is not a U.S. citizen, but he said what he fears the most is not doing enough to help pass the Dream Act, to ensure undocumented Americans are recognized as human beings and not second-class citizens.
He said he also wants to work to help LGBT people “connect the dots” between immigration reform and the fight for gay rights.
When The Advocate linked to a story about him coming out as undocumented, Vargas said he read some of the comments that included statements such as “send this guy back home.”
“I had made the assumption that someone gay would be supportive. I don’t think we have connected the dots as thoroughly and obviously as we should,” he said.
The people in power who want to legislate discrimination against people who are different — such as Asian or Latino — are the same people who believe LGBT people do not deserve full equality, he said.
“The best kind of story is when the specific becomes universal,” he said. “You talk to a Dreamer and how do you not recognize the humanity? The fact is America for us has always been a fight. It is not something that is easily granted to us or we take for granted. This is something we fight for on a daily basis.”
This year is a critical year for immigration reform, Vargas said. President Barack Obama, who was responsible for deporting more than 400,000 people last year, has said the biggest regret he has from his first term was not passing immigration reform.
Today, families are still being ripped apart because the federal government deports family members out of the country. But Asian and Latino voters helped catapult Obama back into the White House and they will not rest until reform comes. There is no more time for regret, Vargas said.
As a political reporter covering the presidential election, Vargas said he talked to many Republican voters in Iowa who asked him, “Where did my country go?”
“I look Asian and my name is Jose and they are asking me this? I don’t know what country you’re talking about,” he said. “Immigration cannot be divorced from the fact that the country looks different — browner, Asian, gayer as more people come out. The sooner we embrace that, the better for all of us.
“I know the hell I went through and we have all gone through all kinds of hell,” Vargas said. “In the struggle, a lot of young people risk their lives to be treated as equal, to be seen as a human being. That’s what this is about.”
Top photo: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented American and a gay man, founded the nonprofit group Define American to elevate and reframe the immigration conversation. (by Gerry Salva Cruz)