Column:  What is being an American? Immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas has some ideas

The man who was a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporting team went public as an immigrant living in the country illegally in a way to tell stories about others in his circumstances.

Share via

In July, Jose Antonio Vargas was arrested trying to board a plane for L.A. for a screening of his film “Documented,” about his life before and after he “outed” himself as an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S. for decades. For the first time since he began living openly without papers in 2011, he will have to appear before an immigration judge. In the meantime, he continues his Define American campaign, challenging this country to acknowledge him and those like him as Americans. And he’s moving back to California from the East Coast, to the state where he grew up and one of 11 in the country that will issue him an honest-to-goodness driver’s license.

What happens to you now?

There’s no date yet. As you know, immigration courts are so backed up, I don’t know how long that’s going to take.


So, paradoxically, your only official U.S. document now is for a court date?


You’ve written that your high profile protects you.

I fly with my Filipino passport that doesn’t have a visa. I have been traveling all across the country going through airport security. I get to south Texas and realize I’m trapped; I didn’t know there would be Border Patrol agents at the airport. What do I do? I write an essay for Politico that I’m trapped!

The moment I gave the Border Patrol agent my passport, he asked me, “Why don’t you have a visa?” Three years ago when I outed myself in the New York Times, I was done lying. One of my friends said I’m exercising a form of radical transparency. So I said, “I’m undocumented, I don’t have papers,” and the minute I said that, he had handcuffs on me. I don’t think the American public realizes that’s a daily reality and daily fear for undocumented people like me.

At one point I was very briefly in a cell with some of the Central American children [who have been crossing the border this year]. I went to south Texas to document what was happening with them. I don’t speak Spanish. I just looked at these kids. Some of them are crying; most of them look very lost. And we’re locking up these children in detention centers?

People have been asking you whether this was a stunt, saying you flaunt your status.


Flaunting what, exactly? That even though I’ve lived in the U.S. for 21 years I still have no government-issued ID? [Vargas came to California when he was 12 to stay with his grandparents; he’s too old to be covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act.] That even though this is my home — where I went to school, where I’ve worked and contributed, where I’ve built my life — my own country has yet to recognize me as one of its own? If I am flaunting anything, it’s the breadth of ignorance and misinformation about immigration and undocumented people like me.

If you want to talk about a stunt, let’s talk about [Texas] Gov. [Rick] Perry. He sent the National Guard to the border — the safest, most militarized zone I’ve ever been to. Border Patrol agents are everywhere. So Gov. Perry is sending the National Guard to a border that’s already secure? That’s a stunt. Me trying to get out of south Texas was a reality for undocumented people who don’t have papers or government-issued ID.

Did you have an emergency plan in case you were stopped, as finally happened?

When I decided to leave south Texas, my friends said, “Why don’t we get you in a car and smuggle you out?” But you can’t get through south Texas without going through an inspection point, and the person driving me could get in trouble. So that wasn’t an option. The night before [the flight], I sent an email to my friends, then called my grandmother to warn her something might happen. My friend Alida Garcia [flew] down; she said, “I’m going to be with you when you’re trying to get out.” She’s the one who took the photo of me being arrested. I gave her the names to call, my lawyer, my family.

Can you use this incident to further your cause?

Three years ago, when we started Define American, the goal was to humanize the undocumented. Our job is to tell stories, not just my stories. This issue is so politicized and partisan and abstract, the goal is to humanize the issue and get it out of the political lens. So for me, if they arrest the quote unquote most high-profile public undocumented person, what do you think they’re doing to the people who aren’t high profile?


An open letter on Huffington Post from undocumented L.A. young people criticizes you for promoting a “good immigrant assimilationist narrative.” They said you don’t represent them.

Of course I don’t speak for them. I am one person. My goal is, how do I use this one story to illuminate a universal truth about [being] undocumented in this country? I am the most privileged undocumented immigrant in America. I’m also an undocumented person who hasn’t seen his mother in 21 years. That’s the kind of family separation that happens for all undocumented people.

When I decided to do this three years ago, I asked myself, am I ready to tie my fate to undocumented people whose circumstances I may not share? What is pernicious is this framing of the deserving immigrant versus the non-deserving immigrant. We all deserve dignity, all of us.

Much of the world’s population is made up of potential political or economic refugees. Is it just about who’s lucky enough to get here?

I just finished a book called “How the Irish Became White.” I’m fascinated by the Irish and Italian immigrants. They were subjected to the same kind of anti-immigration rhetoric: You don’t speak our language. You don’t belong here.

We are a country of immigrants who’ve always been very worried about other immigrants.

But they entered legally, processed through Ellis Island.


Let’s talk about history. Between 1892 and 1955, 12 million undocumented Europeans crossed the border — the Atlantic Ocean — and landed on Ellis Island without papers. They did not get here legally.

Shouldn’t this country make and enforce immigration laws?

Yes, a country has an absolute right to define its borders and enforce its laws, but our history must always be pertinent in our minds, like what happened at Ellis Island. All these immigrants came here without papers, just showed up, and were processed. How do we actually enforce the law and at the same time be humane and fair?

What’s your idea of a humane, effective immigration policy?

There are 11 million people in this country who live in the shadows. Poll after poll shows the American public wants to give people like me legalization and a path to citizenship.

What is the right policy for “unaccompanied minors” we’ve been reading about.


These children deserve due process. As the United Nations has said, many of them qualify as refugees, so why don’t we determine whether that is indeed the case. I dare any politician to look them in the eye and send them back. You can’t. When the potato famine hit Ireland, all those people who came were considered refugees. Why [not] these kids? They [politicians] talk like they’re insects. The rhetoric should be troubling all Americans.

Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, a former immigration attorney, proposed a path to legality that does not include citizenship.

This is why we ask, “How do you define American”? That’s how Mr. Labrador defines American? Second-class citizenship? A path to legalization but not citizenship?

What is being an American, then?

That’s a question we all have to ask. As far as I’m concerned, I’m an American just waiting for my own country to recognize it. I was recently re-watching “Lincoln” — a Republican who freed the slaves. Now Republicans — many of them — are saying they do not want to legalize these Hispanics and Asians because they’re guaranteed Democratic votes. I’m not here to elect anybody. I’m not here to be part of the Republicans or Democrats. America is bigger than a party to me.

People assume I’m Latino or Mexican because of my name. Once they find out I’m not, they often start hating on Mexicans in front of me, using words like “illegals.” This is why Define American has been pressuring the media to stop using the word to refer to people. People use “illegal” and “Mexican” interchangeably, as if all undocumented people are Mexican, as if there’s something wrong with being Mexican. I’m sorry — they used to own Texas and Arizona and California!

In the fight for same-sex marriage, one concern was that pushing too hard could result in a setback. Do deliberate incidents, like so-called Dreamers crossing into Mexico, then trying to cross back, run that risk for immigration?


The reality is, undocumented immigrants, particularly Dreamers who have invigorated and humanized immigration reform, are pushing every button we can to transcend partisan politics and highlight the cracks in our country’s broken immigration system.

We are at a seminal moment. I believe culture is politics. As an openly gay man, I don’t think you can divorce the advancement on same-sex marriage and gay rights from “Will and Grace” and Ellen DeGeneres. The culture shifted before the politics shifted. That’s why for me stories transcend politics.

This interview was edited and condensed.; Twitter: @pattmlatimes