Jose Antonio Vargas, touring with new book, explores America’s immigration paradox

by Mark Noack //Illustration by Kaz Palladino

(Original 650 Illustration by Kaz Paladino/Awkward Affections)

After leaving the Philippines as a child, Jose Antonio Vargas settled in Mountain View with his grandparents, seemingly destined for a new life as an American. He was a model student at local public schools, he plowed voraciously through books and movies from the local libraries, and even had an internship at the hometown newspaper — the Mountain View Voice

But Vargas’ life forever changed when he discovered as a teenager that he was living undocumented in the country, a status that would have precluded pretty much any career or life in the United States. For years, he managed to pass as a citizen, successfully advancing his journalism career, and even winning a Pulitzer Prize while at The Washington Post. He later revealed his undocumented status in an essay in the New York Times Magazine. Since then he has dedicated his work to showing the inconsistency, hypocrisy and human misery at the heart of the U.S. immigration system.

In his new book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, Vargas recounts his own story of growing up in Mountain View and living for years with the fear of being outed as a non-citizen. He uses his biography to show a national paradox — a country wedded to undocumented residents in spite of a national system that refuses to recognize them as anything other than illegal.

Vargas spoke to the The Six Fifty by phone to discuss his new book, his thoughts on immigration and growing up in Mountain View. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

(Images courtesy of Harper Collins)

You describe this as the “most anti-immigrant time in the U.S.” What leads you to that conclusion?

Really the only analogous time would be the 1920s, like right after the racial quotas were established in this country. That’s when we were saying southern Europeans … weren’t as desirable as northern Europeans.

I would say most because most immigrants back then were Europeans, so everyone got to be white. Today, most immigrants aren’t white, most are Latinos, Asians, and some Caribbean and African. There’s the racial component of this in a country where you can’t divorce immigration from race, and you can’t divorce that from citizenship.

In your book, you describe learning that your green card was fake at age 16, when you were a Mountain View High School student. How did that moment change your life?

It changed everything! This is why I did the book — I didn’t know what happened to me until I started writing this, meaning I didn’t bother to examine my own psychology because there wasn’t time for that. I was just too busy running away from everything. This book was my way of dealing with all that, dealing with the consequence of the lies that my grandfather told me, which ended up being my lies.

That moment when I was 16 was a moment of independence because my grandfather’s goal was for me to marry a woman, become a citizen and fix this thing. Clearly that’s not what I did, because I’m gay, so one lie was enough. In many ways, finding out I was here illegally and learning how to cope with that was a very traumatic, but also very confusing, experience.

Vargas at the 2012 Iowa Caucus as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during campaigning. (Image courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas via Harper Collins)

Which was more difficult — coming out as gay in 1999, or coming out as undocumented in 2011?

Interesting question — I’m one person, you can’t cut the gay part from the undocumented part. I’m the same person!

I was lucky that I was able to come out as gay as early as I did because I grew up where I grew up. If I had come out in an anti-gay community, it would have been harder, right? I probably would have been forced to be in the closet about both those things. Maybe I would have married a woman and had to lie to her. Thankfully, I grew up in a community where, coming out as gay, I was supported by the administration at Mountain View High and I was supported by my classmates, for the most part.

The thing for me is people like me aren’t coming out, we’re actually just letting people in. I’m just making people who aren’t gay or aren’t undocumented understand that actually we want the same things.

The humanity of this issue is what’s being robbed of us. We do have more things in common than we have different, and we all want the same things.

You had a coming-out party to reveal to friends and family that you were undocumented and then you went public with your New York Times Magazine story. Do you advise others to go public about their citizenship status?

No, the first question I ask people when they approach me, whether it’s the Obama era or the Trump era, is: ‘Do you have a lawyer? Have you spoken to a lawyer?’

We actually have a coming-out campaign at Define American. There was an actor in Hollywood, Bambadjan Bamba, who had DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status), and he had a role in the Black Panther movie. He approached us and said he’s ready to come out as undocumented to talk about black immigrants and immigrants in Hollywood. We helped him come out in a Los Angeles Times story and we built a whole campaign around Black Panther and immigration, and how to talk about it to audiences. But in that case, Bamba spoke with a lawyer, we did our due diligence.

What were the consequences of announcing your undocumented status?

The biggest thing emotionally is becoming a public person; I didn’t have training for that. As a journalist, we write the story, we’re not the story. That was disorienting.

Also it was being subjected to whatever happens — I could get detained at any point. That happened when I was detained in Texas, and the next time I get arrested, I don’t know how long it will take. It’s getting ready for what we don’t know could happen.

It’s been a big change in my life. I’ve done 1,000 events in 48 states over the past seven years. I’ve been traveling nonstop just getting to know this country. That’s why the title of this book is ‘Dear America.’ I’m sure as you’re reading, it’s a very intimate conversation with America as this person-thing. It’s almost like the country is a character in itself in the book.

Jose Antonio Vargas detained at an airport in McAllen, Texas, on July 15, 2014. (Image courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas via Harper Collins)

You were detained, but did immigration officials penalize you?

Outside of being detained and held for eight hours, no.

Do you think you were treated differently than other undocumented people, given your prominence?

I was released and that proves I was treated differently.

But really, that’s a question you have to ask the government. I was prepared for anything from the very beginning. I never wanted special treatment. You’d have to ask the government why I am getting special treatment, because I don’t know why.

You’ve traveled across most of the U.S. hearing stories of undocumented families and Dreamers — how was your experience growing up undocumented in Mountain View different from theirs?

Social media and technology. Back then, I couldn’t find anybody else like me because there was no way to find anybody. There’s a mental health crisis in immigrant communities across the country, and I don’t have the words to describe it, but at least people have each other. People can Google, YouTube, Facebook it and you can find other people like them.

Back when I was growing up, I couldn’t find anybody going through the same experiences. Technology has really changed all that.

You’ve been visiting a lot of local high schools. How would you say the experience of undocumented children has changed in this area?

A lot of it is people are more aware of the issue. When I was in high school there was no language for it — there was no DREAM Act, no DACA, there was no common place to talk about it, and I think the awareness of it was different.

Parents [of the new Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School] are asking how we are going to protect the undocumented parents and students at the school. Given that it’s my name on that school, that’s something we have to work on: How can an elementary school be a model for how immigrant families are treated in public schools?

A new Mountain View Whisman district school is being renamed in your honor, and they’re tapping you for advice?

Nothing is definite yet, we’ve just spoken about it. First of all, I’m still surprised that this happened. When I came out as undocumented seven years ago, this was not at all expected. I’m still not even over that yet.

I spoke to the principal, Dr. Michael Jones, and it’s clear he wants some input, and that’s amazing. At the end of the day this national, toxic, political, partisan issue — it’s actually a local issue. Every community has to decide how they define American and who they welcome in. Every community has to decide that, including Mountain View.

Vargas with members of Define American. (Image courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas via Harper Collins)

If the political winds change and immigration reform is a possibility, what would you want to see?

That’s why I started Define American. At Define American, we believe you can’t change the politics until you change the culture in which we talk about immigration.

Look at (the) LGBTQ rights movement, how we talk about perceptions toward LGBTQ people changed. How did it change? It changed from the media we were consuming. “Will and Grace” was the number one show in the late ’90s, Ellen DeGeneres was one of the most popular talk show hosts. All of a sudden these aren’t just gay people or trans people. They were people.

Nothing will change on immigration until we actually see them as people. No amount of politics will really change that. Just because we pass immigration reform doesn’t mean that the 11 million undocumented (and I argue it’s more than that) will feel welcome in American society.

Now this administration has done a strategic job of blurring the lines between legal immigration and undocumented immigrants. They couldn’t care less; they just want less immigrants.

Any tips on how to cover immigration better?

I think the biggest thing is to cover it as a family issue. If you were to map out the Peninsula and show how many people are living in mixed-status families, in which the kids are citizens born here and the parents are undocumented. That’s mostly immigrant families. That means you can’t divorce the undocumented population from the U.S. citizens.

That’s something all newspapers must focus on: to stop telling that story from a one-dimensional side of “undocumented people.”

That’s my goal when I was writing this book. One of the things you sense is how connected I am and we are to everyone else. I could not have survived in this country lying, passing and hiding if people weren’t (helping me).

We’re all in it together and yet the news coverage is very segregated. It doesn’t present the full picture.

(Image courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas via Harper Collins)

How do you convince white people that immigrants aren’t their adversaries?

One of the defining issues facing our country is how white people of all ages and political backgrounds will deal with the fact they’re no longer the majority and what that means. That has always been the reality in the Bay Area. Yet the power dynamic is still not equal if you look at wage gap and income gap. What’s at stake here is what kind of awakening are white people going through to realize what is happening in this country?

Having said that, I completely believe we can’t speak about immigration without talking about white people, black people and Native Americans. People think this is just a Latino issue or an Asian issue.

We are all in this together — I know it’s easy to say that, but it’s a harder thing to do. At a time like this, where people in different identity groups are all facing their own struggles, it’s hard to find ways to work together. For me, it’s like what vision are we working toward? How do you convince white people that this is their issue too? Because guess what, it is!

Any other thoughts you want to share with Mountain View?

I was just in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Someone asked me about the elementary school. I’m still processing it; it’s still not real in my head.

But what I keep thinking about is the moment it was announced, and I thought that it wouldn’t happen. I suspected there would be people in Mountain View and in the area saying that you can’t name a school after an ‘illegal.’ The fact that there was no protest against this was astounding to me.

You know why it was astounding? I think people in the community know I’m one of them. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, no one can argue with the fact that I’m a product of that community: the Mountain View public library, the Los Altos public library, Crittenden Middle School.

For me, it solidified the important point that the community has to decide who’s welcome. They have to decide how they define American. And my community decided I was American, even though I don’t have papers.

Vargas will be speaking about his new book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” at a Kepler’s Literary Foundation event at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Aragon High School Theater at 900 Alameda de las Pulgas, San Mateo.

Tickets are $15-$42 and are available through the Kepler’s website

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