Journalist, author and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas encourages others to define what is American.

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September 24, 2019

 Have you ever considered what it must feel like to not exist?

Last Thursday night, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas captivated a theater full of Barrett students, faculty, staff and donors with a talk about his life as an undocumented immigrant. 

Vargas, the 2019 Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecturer at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, spoke at the Tempe Center for the Arts.

Vargas is the author of the book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen”, in which he describes what it feels like to not have a home and to not exist under current U.S. immigration laws.

Vargas said his journey to the U.S began one morning when he was 12 years old and living in his native Philippines. His mother woke him up, handed him a jacket saying, “It might be cold there,” and sent him off to the airport with a man he was told was his uncle. Vargas unknowingly entered the U.S with the help of a coyote and a fake green card. He lived with his grandparents, who had paid to get him here, in Mountain View, Calif. He never saw his mother in person again. 

Four years later, like any normal 16-year-old, Vargas went to the California Department of Motor Vehicles to get his driver’s license. The lady who sat across from him at a customer service window inspected his green card, leaned over, and whispered something that shattered his world - “This is fake.” She told him not to ever show the fake document to anyone again and not to come back to the DMV.

Confused and terrified, Vargas went home to confront his grandfather, only to discover the truth. His grandfather had paid to bring his grandson to the U.S. and to get him a false green card.

From that moment forward, Vargas said, he felt like he didn’t belong in the community he had lived in for four years, that he had no home and no hope.

He forged on through his teen years, graduated from high school and university, and became a journalist. He managed to make excuses for why he couldn’t leave the U.S. to go on a school choir trip or attend a friend’s wedding in Mexico. He managed to get journalism jobs. But he always lived in fear of being found out.

 He was a member of the team at The Washington Post that won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2008 Virginia Tech mass shooting. He also worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Philadelphia Daily News, and the Huffington Post.

 "You lie about everything," he said, describing what he had to say when people asked him why his mother wasn't there or why he couldn't travel outside of the U.S. for fear of not being let back in.

He also talked about what led up to him writing a June 2011 piece in the New York Times, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” in which he finally came out and told his secret to the world.

"In a 5000 word essay I said everything every lawyer told me not to," Vargas said.

Vargas founded Define American, an organization with the purpose of changing the conversation about immigration reform. As the name of his organization suggests, he encourages people to "define what America is and what it means to be American.”

“What did you have to do to be an American? What did you do for your citizenship?”, he asked.

He intends to confront the negative stereotypes about undocumented immigrants, and works with T.V. shows and the news media to educate them on how to represent the issue of immigration, portray immigrants, and curb anti-immigration bias. 

Vargas explained immigration statistics to the audience. He talked about how everyone in the U.S., except for the Native Americans, can trace their ancestry to immigrants who traveled from someplace else to live in America.

Vargas stated that many immigrants today come to the U.S. legally from countries in Asia and Africa and overstay their visas. He expressed dismay at how politicized the issue of illegal immigrants has become.

"Legality has always been a construct of power," he said.

He also talked about the positive impact undocumented immigrants make on the U.S. economy by paying taxes and contributing to the Social Security system but not taking anything out of it because they are ineligible.

Vargas said undocumented immigrants also help support family members in other countries by sending funds called “remittances.” He said he has been sending remittances, along with gifts, to his mother and siblings in the Philippines for years.

"The loss of migration is too heavy," Vargas said, "but you can bury the loss under remittances and consumerism."

Throughout years spent in the U.S., Vargas said he prepared for almost any outcome - even to be arrested and deported back to the Philippines. However, what he did not prepare for was an elementary school in Mountain View being named after him.

The Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School, thought to be among the first schools named after an immigrant living in the United States illegally, opened in August.


Story by Ranjani Venkatakrishnan, a Barrett Honors College student studying journalism.

Read more about Jose Antonio Vargas in this story from ASU Now.