Mountain View High School alumnus and Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas explained to the Morning Forum of Los Altos audience May 20 why he believes that journalism will be instrumental in helping undocumented residents achieve their dream of becoming U.S. citizens.
At 12 years old, Vargas emigrated from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the U.S. His grandfather, a security guard, paid $4,500 to buy him a fake green card and passport. However, Vargas didn’t know that he entered the country illegally until he applied for his driver’s license and was told that his green card was a fake.
Inspired by a high school English teacher, Vargas knew he wanted to be a journalist, and early on his goal was to write for The New Yorker. After graduating from San Francisco State University, Vargas had a series of reporting jobs at major outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post.
At 29, he achieved his high school dream: His interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared in The New Yorker. Ironically, it was that interview that changed the course of Vargas’ life.
“Zuckerberg started asking questions about who I was, and I realized I had spent 14 years lying about my identity,” he said.
The truth wins out
Tired of lying, Vargas consulted with a series of lawyers for advice on his desire to come clean about his history.
“They told me not to tell the truth,” he said.
He ignored their advice. In June 2011, his essay “Outlaw” appeared in The New York Times Magazine, in which he admitted that he had relied on a fake green card to secure all his jobs. He braced himself for the terrible consequences the attorneys had warned about.
“But,” he said, “I wasn’t prepared for silence.”
Vargas appeared on talk shows to tell his story and even phoned the government himself. But nothing happened. The government’s reaction: “‘No comment.’”
At that point, Vargas said he realized that “the government wants to ignore (undocumented residents) because America needs us.”
In 2011, Vargas founded Define American, a nonprofit organization devoted to opening a dialogue about what it means to be an American.
He began filming the documentary “Documented,” now showing in theaters around the country. CNN is scheduled to air the film this summer.
In putting together “We Are Americans, Just Not Legally Documented,” the June 2012 Time magazine cover story, Vargas wanted to expose the myth that only Latin Americans are undocumented. The 36 undocumented Americans who appeared on the cover came from all over the world. Through their stories, Vargas hopes that those Americans who ask “Why don’t you just become legal?” will understand that currently there is no way for people like him to become “legal.”
Impact on families
Vargas wants people to understand that the government’s failure to offer the undocumented a path to citizenship is hardest on families. He has not been able to see his mother in 21 years because he can’t leave the country and she can’t visit him. Thousands of children born in the U.S. are in foster homes because their parents have been deported. Millions who live in “mixed status” families live in fear of their families being broken apart.
Vargas shared how the study of history has inspired his work as a journalist and filmmaker, especially when he learned of the role journalists played in the success of the African-American struggle for civil rights.
Vargas emphasized that Americans must remember that 20 million “undocumented” Europeans came to the United States through Ellis Island.
“Let he or she who has no immigrant in their family history cast the first stone,” he said.
At a recent immigration rally, Vargas received an award from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a major figure in the civil tights movement of the 1960s. Vargas said he was thrilled when Lewis told him, “I see you got yourself into some necessary trouble.”
The best way to facilitate change, Vargas said, is to avoid demonizing the other side and to listen to those who are resistant to the changes bringing about the “loss of dominance by straight white males.”
By listening to those who are fearful, Vargas added, we can help them understand that granting the undocumented the right to show what they can contribute to the U.S. will help – not harm – the country.
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.