Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
José Antonio Vargas has had a good couple of months. In June, he helped bring the immigration debate back into the national spotlight with a cover story for Time magazine on the struggles of undocumented youth. Then came the White House’s groundbreaking announcement that deportations of potentially hundreds of thousands of young immigrants would be halted under the “deferred action” program, which offers many young undocumented immigrants a two-year, renewable authorization to work and study here.
The Filipino-born journalist-turned-activist has now been vaulted to the helm of the immigrant rights movement.
He came to the United States on a tourist visa to see his grandparents in Mountain View, California, when he was twelve and never left. He was unaware of his undocumented status until he tried to get his driver’s license at the local DMV and found out his papers were fake.
He went on to graduate from high school and college, and built an impressive career in journalism, all the while hiding his legal status. He worked at The Washington Post, where he was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.
“On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream,” he wrote last year in a moving cover article for The New York Times Magazine, where he told his life story and boldly proclaimed he was undocumented.
“Tough as it was, coming out about being gay seemed less daunting than coming out about my legal status,” he wrote in the piece. “I kept my other secret mostly hidden.”
His journey toward an award-winning career in journalism represents the untapped potential of undocumented youth who are pressing for reforms that would allow them to secure their futures in the country they see as home.
As more stories like Vargas’s come to the surface, other undocumented Americans are increasingly emboldened to speak their own truth. Their collective voice is humanizing the politics of immigration and inspiring a new public conversation on what it means to be American. Vargas is advancing this public debate through his social media campaign, Define American.
Jeff Chang spoke to Vargas at an art exhibit at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California. The event was sponsored by CultureStrike, a grassroots organization of artists, writers, and other creative workers fighting back against anti-immigrant laws and attitudes.
The art exhibit featured the pioneering artist Julio Salgado, one of the many undocumented youth featured in the Time story. Vargas talked about the state of the movement and his personal evolution as an undocumented American. They began the conversation by reflecting on Vargas’s recent appearances on mainstream and rightwing news outlets.
Q: Rightwing pundits try to portray immigrants in two ways: the sympathetic undocumented, and the unsympathetic “illegal.” How do you deal with that?
José Antonio Vargas: To them, right now, I pass. I’m quote-unquote “sympathetic.” What would have happened if I were browner? And had an accent? Would I have been able to pass?
Fortunately, we are now, for the first time, in control of the story. The Republicans are losing their minds. They don’t know what to say! They’re passing the thing around like it’s a hot tamale. They don’t know what’s going on.
We’re telling our stories. More and more people are going to be coming out. And more and more people who are supporters are going to be coming out. It’s so important that we’re engaging them in whatever way we can, and insist, by just simply being there, that we are human beings who cannot be denied.
Q: If this is your strategy, how have people been reacting? You’re going into the lions’ den every night. Are the lions still peaceful?
Vargas: It’s interesting because in the immigrant rights community, people have said this to me, and have said this to each other: “What is José Vargas doing? Why is he talking to Lou Dobbs?” I’m talking to Lou Dobbs because Lou Dobbs needs to be talked to. I don’t think he has ever had an undocumented person on for eleven minutes during his show. My strategy was, you get in, and then you figure out how to push. That’s why I’m talking to Lou Dobbs.
I want to try to engage more Republicans. I’ve also been on O’Reilly. Because my target isn’t really Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly, it’s their audiences. Bill O’Reilly reaches four million people a night. That’s more than any other cable show between 7 and 11 o’clock at night. And, he is talking to the people that we usually don’t talk to. They think that all of us crossed the border yesterday and landed outside Home Depot.
We are now at the point in this movement where we have to figure out how to broaden this conversation. How are we sure we’re not just preaching to the choir? How do we make sure that white people and black people feel like this is their issue, too? If we are not doing that, then we are not doing our job.
What’s been fascinating is seeing how the viewers are reacting. I get interesting e-mail. Of course, there’s the crazy ones that just want me to go home, and I’m like, what home? My Mountain View home, or my New York City home?
I got a response from this wonderful man who was like, “Oh hey, I used to run the Minuteman organization here in Oklahoma City. I never thought about it like that before.” He said, “Would you want to come to Oklahoma City? Let’s do a town hall meeting. Can you invite all your friends?” So we’ll just do a talk, a Define American talk, on immigration in the middle of Oklahoma City.
There have been people who have been seriously just craving information. That’s why I was so happy about the Time magazine article, because there was an entire section in the article that actually talks about the process of legalizing immigration status.
Q: The media always wants to have a central figure. How do you deal with that, on a personal level: the fact that you see yourself as one person in this large movement, yet you’re the person now who’s going on all these shows.
Vargas: I’m a journalist, so I’m used to being the one interviewing people. I’m not used to being in this role. That’s very new for me, to be the one they want to talk to. In the beginning, it was very uncomfortable, and especially knowing that other people, such as immigrant rights activist Gaby Pacheco, have been doing this for so long. And then I just showed up. All of a sudden, I’m taking more spotlight than they are.
Sometimes when I see them, I actually apologize. I’m just like, “I’m so sorry.” So that’s why I’m doing as much as I can to stay in my lane, to not claim credit for something I don’t deserve, to make sure that I realize always that I am just one of hundreds of thousands of people.
It is so important that we support each other—even though we don’t agree on our tactics—and realize we are in the same fight. That’s really all I can do.
Q: We just had this executive order, and we’ve got all these grassroots movements happening. Where do we go from here?
Vargas: For me, what’s fascinating is that there’s a new normal in the way we’re talking about immigration in this country. After the Obama Administration’s order to halt deportations of undocumented youth, the following Monday, Bloomberg had a poll: 66 percent of independents agreed with the President’s decision. The Republicans are freaking out. Because they know they can’t just go on television and say, “That was wrong.” This is why Romney still has not been able to answer the most basic question.
So now I think, how do we keep this pressure on? How do we strategize in terms of making sure we are building the right kind of coalitions? The proudest thing about this is the [headline on the Time magazine cover]: “We are Americans.” Because we are.
And so for me, as someone who is a storyteller, that’s what I am most interested in for the movement. I’m going to try to do what I can do. You know, we only have one group, Define American. And we’re going to be partnering up with CultureStrike as much as we can to figure out how we can bring artists, pop culture into things.
I’m going to L.A. to do a show-runner panel; it’s when you invite writers from TV shows and movies and producers and screenwriters, and ask them how they can write about immigration on their shows. How do we integrate this? Can you imagine having an undocumented character on Glee? That’s my goal. That, to me, would be a big win.
Q: How have you been dealing with this on a personal level?
Vargas: [The night Obama issued the “deferred action” order halting deportations], I got a call around midnight, from one of the big advocacy people: “José, I have good news and bad news, which one do you want first?” And I’m like, “Good news!” “Obama has ordered deferred action, for about 800,000 to 1.4 million people. The bad news: You’re too old” [referring to the policy’s arbitrarily set thirty-year age limit—Vargas is thirty-one].
And I’m not going to lie to you, I was really fucking mad. I think I started punching the wall. Do they understand that they’re fucking around with people’s lives? I was really angry with that. And because I was thinking of my grandmother, who, of course, the next day asked, “Why aren’t you included?”
And then I remember, this magazine was already out, and I have a bunch of copies in my apartment. I’m looking at Time, and thirty-two out of the thirty-six [young immigrants featured on the cover] qualify.
There’s Caesar, who graduated magna cum laude from law school.
There’s somebody with chemical engineering.
How could you not be happy? America just embraced a million new dreams.
I got so many messages from the Dreamers I know that were like José, dude, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. That was amazing.
How could I not be happy?
But for me, personally, it’s been nineteen years since I haven’t seen my mom. And when people have been asking me what I am most scared of, I’m probably most scared of that. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen when I see her.
I just want to be able to face her.
I just want to be able to live.
Jeff Chang is an award-winning journalist who lives in Berkeley, California. He is one of the coordinators of CultureStrike, an organization that uses art and culture to advance the movement for immigrants’ rights. His next book, “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” a look at the controversies of the culture wars of the post-civil rights era, is forthcoming. A version of this interview, edited by Michelle Chen, originally appeared at culturestrike.net/vargas-a-million-new-dreams.