The night before President Barack Obama heralded his continued commitment to immigration reform in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, a young professional with roots in Mountain View brought the issue home. Jose Antonio Vargas shared stories of his life as an undocumented resident at an MVLA Community Scholars fundraiser.
Vargas’ journey is similar to that of the 170,000 undocumented immigrants that the Public Policy Institute of California estimates live in Santa Clara County. After being smuggled into the United States from the Philippines when he was 12 years old, Vargas navigated the halls of Mountain View High School and launched a career in journalism while carrying a secret: He didn’t have a visa or paperwork to reside legally in the U.S.
With the emotional and financial support of an underground network of teachers, administrators and friends he trusted with his secret, Vargas completed college and pursued a career that led him to winning a Pulitzer Prize while working at the Washington Post.
Hiding his status took a toll on Vargas, now 32, and he revealed in 2011 that he was an undocumented immigrant via an editorial in The New York Times Magazine. Making up for lost time, Vargas began sharing his story with groups across the country. A 2011 gathering at the home of one of his Los Altos mentors helped launch his Define American campaign, an effort that engages advocates in the push for immigration reform.
Vargas took three years to produce “Documented,” a film chronicling the U.S. immigration system. Currently on tour around the country, the film is scheduled to air on CNN in the late spring or early summer.
“It’s not just about reaching undocumented people like me, but it’s also about engaging allies,” said Vargas of his documentary. “Everyone has an immigration story.”
Recalling how important films and television were as he learned English and the nuances of American culture, Vargas chose the medium of film to connect more people to the immigration dialogue. Although he didn’t plan to focus on his personal journey when he embarked on the project, the film evolved into an exploration of the challenges he had to overcome and continues to face as the fear of deportation looms.
“The only thing I have control over is what I create,” Vargas said.
Although there is no current pathway to citizenship for those in Vargas’ shoes – his age and situation exclude him from federal programs that could postpone deportation – his story is inspiring other young people who share the experience.
Inspiring other immigrants
Los Altos High School student Kimberly Garcia is in much the same situation as Vargas was as a young, undocumented resident. Unlike Vargas, however, Garcia can be open about her status because she qualifies for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, enacted by the federal government in 2012, which enables undocumented people under the age of 29 to defer a decision about their status while pursuing an education.
“I have something,” she said. “I’m allowed to be here.”
Garcia may legally work, drive, attend high school and apply to colleges under DACA – opportunities that did not exist for Vargas as a high schooler.
“A lot of people are surprised,” said Garcia of reactions to her undocumented status. “I feel that, especially at our school, people need to talk about it.”
Vargas laid the groundwork for the current environment in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, which enables undocumented youth to find opportunities to succeed. MVLA Community Scholars supported Vargas in high school and funded his enrollment at San Francisco State. The program has since assisted 225 district students.
Garcia, who continues to benefit from the mentorship and financial support of MVLA Community Scholars, plans to teach English in elementary school after completing college.
When Vargas returned to Mountain View last week to screen “Documented,” the film’s first showing in 2014, Garcia was in the audience to show her support.
“It’s really important that he’s here,” she said.
Although Vargas struggles day-to-day with the specter of deportation, it won’t stop him from using his skills as a journalist and storyteller to frame the immigration debate.
“I’m trying to do something good,” he said. “I hope that I show this country and this town what we can do together.”
For more information, visit defineamerican.com.
Jose Antonio Vargas visits Mountain View - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier