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By Dennis J. Bernstein
Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas is undocumented.
Born in the Philippines and raised in the United States from the age of 12, he was part of The Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2008 for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. He wrote, produced, and directed the autobiographical 2013 film Documented.
In a June 2011 article, Vargas revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant in an effort to promote dialogue about the immigration system in the U.S. It was also a way to advocate for the DREAM Act, which would help children in similar circumstances have a path to citizenship. Vargas is the founder of "Define American,” a campaign to open up dialogue about the criteria people use to determine who is an American.
About himself he says, "I am an American. I just don't have the right papers.
On July 15, 2014, after living for 21 years in the United States as an undocumented resident, Vargas was arrested by immigration authorities while trying to fly out of the border town of McAllen, Texas. He was released several hours later after being questioned.
“As an unaccompanied child migrant myself, I came to McAllen, Texas, to shed a light on children who parts of America and many in the news media are actively turning their backs on,” he said upon is release. “But what I saw was the generosity of the American people, documented and undocumented, in the Rio Grande Valley. I’ve been released by Border Patrol. I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country. Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family. With Congress failing to act on immigration reform, and President Obama weighing his options on executive action, the critical question remains: How do we define American?”
I interviewed Vargas for the Flashpoints radio show in early June, after a screening of the film in Santa Rosa, California. Here is an edited transcript.
BERNSTEIN: Welcome to Flashpoints, Jose Antonio Vargas.
VARGAS: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
BERNSTEIN: You used the phrase “undocumented American.” You do not like the phrase “illegal immigrant.” Tell us a little bit about that.
VARGAS: First of all, to be undocumented in this country means to be obsessed with documents, right? You don’t have any documents, or the wrong documents. So undocumented and unauthorized is a pretty accurate thing.
We added American because that’s what I am. I just don’t have the papers to show you. This is my home, this is where I grew up, this is where I pay taxes, this is where my family is, at least everyone except my mom and my sister. This is where I have my shoes. This is where I am from.
Now “illegal,” can you think of any other instance in the American vernacular in which we refer to people as “illegal”? Is there any other instance that we do that? That we refer to people as “illegal”? So I am here illegally; there’s no question about that. But I, as a person, am not “illegal.”
Mind you, to be here, to be undocumented and without authorization in the United States is actually a civil offense, and not a criminal one.
Which means that calling people like me “illegal” is actually factually inaccurate. But that might be too much. Some people may not be able to handle it. But to me it’s really important to talk about the level of vitriol and also, how do you legalize people who are “illegal”? You don’t. You just call them “illegal,” end of conversation, right? And we have so grown accustomed to that, in which for me what was so troubling was meeting so many American citizens who refer to American-born Latinos and Mexicans as “illegals,” even though they were born here and they are from here. I don’t think we even understand the damage that we’ve done to each other, when it comes to this word, and when it comes to this kind of thinking.
BERNSTEIN: I was very moved by your film. And there are a couple of scenes in the film where you were, in one way or another, having a dialogue with some white folks. I can’t remember what states you were in, forgive me.
VARGAS: I was in Iowa and Alabama. Those were the two scenes.
BERNSTEIN: They didn’t seem like they were terrible people but they couldn’t really grasp who you were. What was going on there?
VARGAS: They can’t grasp who I am because they don’t know what this is. They have no idea what it is. The ordinary, average American does not think about immigration in a way that is truthful to the issue, or factual to the issue, right? I mean the fact that everybody assumes that I’m Mexican just because my name is Jose, right? Like there’s so much about this issue that is at the heart of this demographically, and culturally changing America, that people don’t even understand.
The fact that there are 17 million households in America that are what’s called mixed-status family households, meaning someone in that household is undocumented. So I’m in one of those households. I’m Filipino, one of the Italians of Asia. So there’s like 20 - 25 immediate family members. Out of all those 25 people, I’m the only one who is undocumented. All the others are American citizens who pay taxes, and who work. So people don’t understand kind of how integrated undocumented people are, in pretty much every fabric of American life.
So when they ask questions like, “Why don’t you just make yourself legal,” that strikes at the heart of just how little Americans know about the immigration process. The immigration code is just as complicated as the tax code, if not more so.
BERNSTEIN: I have to ask you what was going through your mind as you saw this situation unfolding in Arizona. In Tucson there was a book ban, there were these incredibly draconian laws, there was a crackdown by a sheriff who had undocumented Americans marching around in pink underwear. And you have a situation where the governor of Arizona is sort of being a Bull Connor.
VARGAS: Did we ever think the Arizona would be the new Alabama? Is Jan Brewer reading history at all? Does she know how this ends? I think it’s pretty clear how history is going to judge her.
We have a responsibility to all of our Latino citizens and undocumented people in this country to be on the right side of history when it comes to this issue. We have for far too long, for more than a decade, in this country after 9/11, we’ve generalized immigrants.
One of the most tragic things as I travel around the country is how many people use the word Mexican and illegal interchangeably. And when people say Mexican they say it with such a pejorative term, as though there is something wrong with being Mexican. Much of this country used to be part of Mexico. What are we having here, some sort of a collective amnesia about where we are, and where we come from? We can’t have second-class citizenship in America.
I would like for this issue to be treated a civil rights and a human rights issue, because that’s what it is. Yet, all we’ve done is clouded it with political polarization and theater. And, yet, people are struggling every day. And the question that we’re asking people, which to me is a really core question, is, “How do you define American?”
BERNSTEIN: Do you have a definition?
VARGAS: Well, I define an American as anybody who considers this country their home. I define American as someone who wants to contribute to this country. Because I think you have to contribute to this country. I define American as someone who embraces everything that is beautiful and ugly about American history.
BERNSTEIN: What do you hope happens with your film?
VARGAS: Of course, I want to impact dialogue. But more than that, for me, this film is an artistic act of civil disobedience. I am the most privileged undocumented person in America. We are deporting 1,000 people a day and what do I do? I make a film. So the film is dedicated to the 11 million people who couldn’t make the film, right? And for me to kind of liberate myself, and my story, which is a very complex story, which is analogous to many, many other stories. The film is a way to ask a lot of questions. But more than anything else, it humanizes, I hope, a very political and polarizing issue. Immigration is not a right or left issue. It’s a right or wrong cause.
BERNSTEIN: Tell me about your background.
VARGAS: I was born in the Philippines and came to the United States. My mom put me on a plane when I was twelve. Then I got to Mountain View and the Bay Area. Four years later, I found out I was undocumented, and I didn’t really know what that meant. All I knew was that I didn’t have the right papers to be in America.
A year after that my English teacher said I asked too many annoying questions and that I should do this thing called journalism. So that was the first I had ever heard of journalism. But I realized that when you write an article for a newspaper that meant that your name is on a piece of paper. So I thought, wait, wait, I will be in the papers, so maybe that’s a way to exist, and contribute. So I just started writing. And so I wrote for my high school paper, the community paper, where I grew up and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post, then the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and other publications. And then about maybe 13 years of doing that, and 13 years of kind of lying in government forms and misrepresenting myself I decided that it was time to tell my own story.
And so that’s when I outed myself in the New York Times, and at the same time I formed an organization called Define American, defineamerican.com. And before I even outed myself in the New York Times I started filming. Three years later I finished the film, which is being shown in theaters across the country, including San Francisco, Sebastopol, and Berkeley. And then it’s going to be aired on CNN later in the summer.
BERNSTEIN: When did you come to the States?
VARGAS: Twenty-one years this August, August 3rd, is when I got to America.
BERNSTEIN: Did you know what was going on? How did you leave?
VARGAS: No, I didn’t. My grandparents, my mother’s parents, were already in the United States and they were the ones who supported us in the Philippines. So my mother always would drop hints about how we were both going. Like we’re going to go follow them.
And so one morning when I woke up, and my suitcase was packed and there was a cab waiting outside and my mom said that was the day that I was leaving. And then I was introduced to this man at the airport who they told me was my uncle. But in Filipino culture everybody is an uncle or everybody is an aunt. So sure he’s an uncle, whatever. I remember just being excited because I had never flown before. So my first experience getting inside the airport and getting on a plane was that morning. And then before I know it, I’m in America. I remember my mom saying to me, “If anyone ever asks me where I was going I should tell them I’m going to Disneyland.”
BERNSTEIN: How did you find out you were undocumented?
VARGAS: I found out when I went to the DMV to get a drivers’ permit and I realized that this green card that my grandfather had given me was fake. But I guess, my grandparents, particularly my grandfather, he just thought I was going to work under the table jobs. Then find a woman to marry and then get my citizenship that way. He didn’t really think it through. They wanted the best for me but they didn’t really imagine that I would ever be anything more than what they were. My grandfather was a security guard; my grandmother was a food server. And they thought I was going to have that kind of life, which is a perfectly acceptable life. They supported me that way. They just never thought I would be anything else than that.
And they also never thought I was going to be gay. So when I outed myself as gay that kind of ruined a lot of the plans. It just got really complicated. But in the film, as you know, you’ve seen the film, it’s really important to kind of embrace and own all this complexity, right? Like we are more than one thing. I am more than an “undocumented person” and I’m more than a gay person. Those two things can co-exist, all at once. Our society, especially in the media, we oversimplify things too much.
BERNSTEIN: When did you say I can no longer live a lie?
VARGAS: For me it was building when I was at the Washington Post covering an election campaign as an “illegal” person. I’m covering it and I’m flying around the country covering Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Huckabee, and Romney, and that’s when the madness of the situation began to get unbearable. Because you know when you travel with candidates, you have to show I.D.s, and you have to fly on planes, and you have to drive, and at any moment I was just prepared for somebody to just pull me over, tap me on the shoulder and say, “You’re not supposed to be here.” So that’s when it started.
As one of my friends told me, “You’re like playing a real life version of catch me if you can.” Which is, I guess, kind of what was happening. But it got surreal.
I remember when I landed the profile of Zuckerberg for the New Yorker. And I had to spend a lot of time interviewing him. And that was definitely the biggest writing assignment of my life. And at one point I was interviewing him and Mark is actually a social guy. He’s not like that dude from the movie that was made. So at one point I was interviewing him and he turned around to me, and said “Hey, Jose where are you from?” Which is such a basic question, like where are you from? And it completely disoriented me. Because where I was from, was I had to lie about where I was from. That’s where I am from. So that was kind of a moment where I had to stop.
It’s one thing to lie to your employers, and to your friends, but it’s a whole other thing when you lie to yourself. It’s delusional to think that you can kind of keep telling these lies and them not having to catch up on you. And, for me, it finally did. Once I decided I was going to do it, it was like letting go of that fear. Making this movie is letting go of that fear.
BERNSTEIN: Your film sort of culminates with you interviewing your mom, whom you hadn’t seen in 21 years.
VARGAS: That was the first time I spoke with her using Skype. Like we spoke on the phone, which was easier. But Skype is like you see the person.
BERNSTEIN: So that was when you saw her...
VARGAS: Yeah, when I saw her physically moving in front of me. How do you explain not seeing your mother for twenty years? But the film shows that, the film shows what the toll is and what the consequences are with such a separation. This is what happens when families are separated.