In June 2011, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas published a first-person account in the New York Times Magazine revealing that he was an undocumented immigrant. The green card his family had used to bring him to the United States as a child was fake. He nevertheless managed to build a career as a journalist, reporting for The Washington Post on the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C. and winning a Pulitzer Prize for contributing to the paper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. Since revealing his undocumented status, Vargas has been working on a documentary and founded the group Define American to use the power of stories to “shift the conversation on how we think about immigration and citizenship and identity in an America that is changing.” Vargas spoke with The Chronicle’s Julian Spector about these issues, in advance of his appearance on campus Sept. 16.
The Chronicle: Your experience is very different from the typical understanding of life as an undocumented immigrant. Where do you think those perceptions come from?
Jose Vargas: The media has had a lot to do with that. When we talk about immigration in this country, especially undocumented people, it’s almost tattooed in our minds that it’s a Mexican issue, that it’s a border issue. The media in general has failed to contextualize and cover this issue that is at the heart of a changing America. There are people like me, undocumented people, who are completely integrated in American society. You know somebody who is undocumented—we go to the same schools, we go to the same Walmart, we go to the same churches. This is an issue that is integrated into American life and yet for the most part the media has written about it as if we’re segregated from society, and we’re not.
TC: You’d been a journalist for years when you published that piece. How did it feel to transition from newswriter to newsmaker?
JV: That’s been for me the biggest adjustment of it all. There are times when I wish I was just working on a really big story that has nothing to do with me. In the past almost three years that I’ve been researching immigration and living through it very publicly, I feel like I’m working on the biggest story of my life, it just happens to personally involve me. I’m trying as much as possible to hold on to my principles as a reporter, which means that my job is to listen to people, my job is to research and contextualize a really complex and misunderstood issue. I feel like in some ways I’m still doing what I used to do, but now it’s personal. And that makes it harder and makes it of course more urgent.
TC: When you were working as a reporter, how did you cope with having to hide that aspect of your life?
JV: There were some conflicting emotions. To be a journalist is to seek the truth as far as you can seek it. And yet the whole time I was lying about who I am. I lied about being an undocumented person. Everybody assumed that because I talk the way that I do and look the way that I do and I write the way that I do—no one ever questioned that I was American, until I told them that I was not. And to me that’s part of the dysfunction. Do you think that undocumented people are only working class people? Is that the stereotype?
TC: How did you reconcile seeking the truth as a journalist while lying to people?
JV: I justified it to myself that I had to be as good as possible. When you’re undocumented in this country, you grow up hearing the media calling you illegal. It’s an incredibly dehumanizing and disorienting kind of thing.
By journalism, I was going to be better than good, and I was going to write stories no one else was going to write. Mind you, that’s a very deluded thing to be thinking. I wasn’t that good. I just had to fight my way to thinking that I was worthy enough to be here. America to me is something you fight for and something you earn, it’s not just something that’s given to you.
TC: From your story, it seems like you wouldn’t have made it without a strong support network at school and work.
JV: That’s one of the big issues we try to get out at Define American, is that people like me depend on the kindness of these good Samaritans, like my high school principal who basically became my mother, like my mentor at The Washington Post who hid my secret. I told him I was undocumented I expected him to turn me in to HR. Instead he said, “Don’t tell anybody else, we’re in this together.” Can you imagine how many people do this every day, and who are they? Can we have them speak out and come out for their support for people like us?
TC: Has the government tried to deport you?
JV: Obama’s administration had deported more than 1.6 million undocumented people in the past four years, and I am not one of them. Again, I’m in an incredibly privileged position to be doing what I’m doing. With that privilege comes a tremendous amount of responsibility.
TC: Is it because you have such a high profile position that they can’t do it?
JV: I don’t know if you read my cover story for Time Magazine, but I actually called the government myself. I called [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and I was like, “Hi, what’s up, I haven’t heard from you. Are you going to deport me? When? Why or why not?” And the response form the government was no comment.
TC: That’s got to be the best no comment a journalist can receive, right?
JV: If you think about it that’s a metaphor for the whole issue of this country and how you think about us. You know we’re here. There’s 11 million of us. The question is what do you want to do with us. Really, the biggest question of all is how do you define American? As far as I’m concerned, I’m an American. I’m just waiting for my country to recognize it.