Immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas wants us to acknowledge our common humanity

The author of ‘Dear America’ and founder of Define American on queerness, transformative tech, and living openly as an undocumented immigrant for Document's Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

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Jose Antonio Vargas never asked to be here. When he was 12, his mother put him on a plane in the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the US, promising to follow within a year. Her visa never came through. As he recounts in his new memoir, Dear America, he was told at the DMV when he applied for a driver’s permit at age 16 that his green card was a fake. “Don’t come back here again,” the woman behind the desk whispered to him.

In April 2011, shortly before coming out as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times Magazine, Vargas founded Define American, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the conversation about immigration and citizenship in the US. Since then, he’s been helping all of us come to terms with the distance and dissonance between our country’s foundational values and our immigration policies. He lives on the road, with an ever-present awareness that he could be deported at any time. There is no path to citizenship for someone like him.

He may not have asked for any of this, but he’s here. And as long as he is, he’s determined to make the country a more just and humane place—even if it won’t claim him as one of its own.

Dan Gilmore: A Pew Research Center poll from June indicated that immigration is the most important issue to US voters leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. Do you think that we’re finally going to see some movement on comprehensive immigration reform?

Jose Antonio Vargas: In the past decade, poll after poll has shown that immigration is an important issue for American voters. It’s never been the most important, but it’s always been near the top. But this has not translated into any sort of action or urgency— none of the polls have led to actual, tangible change. I’m not sure that this recent poll is any different.

I feel as if we have reached the tipping point. I’m saying this as a journalist and as someone who happens to be undocumented, which means I live through this issue every day. I cannot think of a more controversial yet less understood issue in America. If you went to that poll and actually started asking people what immigration is, each one of them would tell you something different.

Dan: Right.

Jose: We can’t pass immigration reform if we can’t even agree on what we think of as immigration.

 “I’ll never forget when one of my friends in DC, a political reporter, said to me that he just never thought that someone ‘illegal’ would ever be inside a newsroom.”

Dan: Can you break that down? Because you hear politicians talking about comprehensive immigration reform, but then they elaborate on it, and it seems like they’re all speaking about different policy objectives. If comprehensive immigration reform were a Venn diagram, with a circle for Democrats and a circle for Republicans, what would be in the middle? Is there any issue that is fairly noncontroversial and that everyone can agree on?

Jose: I think the concept of the DREAMers [Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors], many of whom have DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. You say ‘DACA’ or ‘DREAM Act’ now and people have an idea what they are. The DREAMers have been the ones that have broken through. But I would argue they’ve broken through with a narrative that in itself is too limiting. You have politicians from the right and the left saying, ‘Let’s not blame these kids for the mistakes of their parents.’ Most of these are the ‘good’ kids—the English-speaking, college-educated kids. So we’ve created a class within this group of immigrants. We’ve said that we want these more accessible, more ‘integrated,’ more Americanized people—but we don’t want their parents. And we don’t want their uncles. And maybe not the cousin, because, you know, the cousin only went to community college or something. So even within the DREAMers, who would fit in the overlap of that Venn diagram, we have excluded people.

I think we’re really seeing now how exclusionary our immigration policies are. You can’t talk about immigration reform and not talk about what’s happening within the legal immigration system. And I think that has been the real tragedy of the Trump presidency: We have made the word ‘immigration’ a bad one. The Trump administration has blurred what’s legal and illegal and just said, ‘Well, wait a second—do we even want them here?’ Documents aside, legality aside. ‘Do we even want H-1B visas anymore? Do we want birthright citizenship?’ I think birthright citizenship is absolutely on the table.

I’m very careful when I use this phrase, but white supremacy is in such a panic. People are reacting in such a time of panic. I don’t think it’s a surprise that you follow eight years of Barack Obama with Trump. With every action comes a reaction, and [Trump] is the reaction to [Obama]. The first time Trump really started talking about politics as a contender for the presidency was when he started questioning the citizenship of an American president. I remember when that started happening, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘Wait a second—if you are going to question the citizenship of a sitting American president, then everything is on the table.’ Are we then surprised that he’s questioning the citizenship of undocumented people? Are we surprised that we are hearing about border patrol agents not recognizing that people who happen to be Hispanic are US citizens with documents?

I think the question of immigration cannot be divorced from the conversation on citizenship. I think those two things are married to each other.

Dan: I want to go back to the idea of different classes of immigrants. The mission of Define American is in part to ‘shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America.’ You’re not just working on behalf of undocumented immigrants. How do you think about bridging the differences between these different types of immigrants, whose priorities and concerns and experiences can be so different from each other’s? How do you find common ground?

Jose: I think my work traffics in the intersections of people, and I think it will be defined by the bridges we build. I feel strongly that we are living in a tribalistic culture, and if we don’t work outside of our own identities, we will not create a vision that speaks to a broader America.

Dan: But very specifically, how do you convince someone who’s here on, say, an employment-based immigrant visa that the conversation about undocumented immigrants matters to her? How do you persuade people to be interested in other groups? I think about this as a gay person. As you know, with the ‘alphabet soup’ of identities that we have— LGBTQQIAAP [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, allies, asexual, and pansexual]—there’s always discussion about whether a gay man can really relate to the experience of someone who is trans, or a lesbian to the experience of someone who is intersex. There can sometimes be a feeling that certain groups are being left behind.

Jose: I find it really offensive that people fighting for inclusion are so quick to exclude other people. That is what worries me about our moral fabric at the moment. We have built a culture of exclusivity. To me, the ultimate test is, how human are you? This is why it’s been fascinating in the past few months watching the rhetoric around immigration. All of a sudden, it’s not about immigration reform—it’s about ‘families belong together’ or ‘reunite families.’ They’re not saying ‘immigrant families’ or ‘refugee families.’ They’re saying ‘families.’ So how do we get to the humanity in all this?

Dan: And the universality of it.

Jose: The universality of it, and the specifics of all of our lives and all of our stories. For me, an undocumented, gay, Filipino man, to tell a white suburban mom, ‘You can’t be a part of this conversation, you don’t know…’ I find that really offensive. Yet I would argue that our politics has been defined by it.

Dan: I agree, and I think that’s by design. Divide and conquer. You just mentioned being undocumented and being gay. In your book, you talk about coming out twice: first as a gay man and then as an undocumented immigrant. Coming out as gay has long been framed as a political act and, certainly decades ago, a necessary step to change perceptions and achieve progress. It represented an extraordinary personal risk when far fewer people publicly identified as gay. But while that risk may have included the destruction of career and relationships, it didn’t usually include deportation. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the difference between those two things, coming out as gay and coming out as undocumented.

“It’s been fascinating in the past few months watching the rhetoric around immigration…They’re not saying ‘immigrant families’ or ‘refugee families.’ They’re saying ‘families.'”

Jose: The first thing that I had to realize is, I wasn’t coming out. In my head, I was letting people in. Even the framing around that is really important to me.

Dan: Yeah.

Jose: Gay people who come out, we’re already out to ourselves. We’re just providing a bridge for people to realize that we’re actually not that different, that we want the same things that you have. We want to be able to be in relationships and have families and feel like we have dignity. It was interesting for me, though—I remember I was doing an event, I think in Arkansas, and a gay man came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Would you have come out as gay as early as you did’—which I did when I was 18, still in high school—‘if you had lived in a community that wasn’t welcoming of gay people?’

Dan: What did you say?

Jose: I had not even thought about it like that. You know, I grew up about 40 minutes from San Francisco. I went to a high school where the teacher was showing a documentary of Harvey Milk. I grew up surrounded by positive images of LGBTQ people. That might have been totally different if I was living in a small town—somewhere in rural America, for example— where being gay wasn’t something that you publicly acknowledged. So, yeah, I absolutely benefited from that, and I think that’s why I came out. The year in my life that was really hard was when I was in the closet about both these things that I didn’t know how to talk about with anybody. I’m not sure what would have happened psychologically if I had had to be in the closet about those things for, like, a decade.

Dan: There is a bit of a difference between the two, isn’t there? Even though it historically represented this great risk to come out as gay, it was necessary for generations of gay people to do it in order to change minds and policies. The single greatest indicator of people’s acceptance of gay people is whether or not they know someone who is gay. You can imagine that the narratives around undocumented immigrants might be very different if undocumented immigrants were freer to publicly self-identify as such. Do you think that’s a hurdle to changing the narrative?

Jose: Absolutely. After Trump’s election, we have seen Define American people who are less willing to be public about who they are and where they are: where they’re living, where they work, where they to go to school. The Obama presidency was marked with a sort of public coming out of undocumented people. And I think Trump’s election made people question how…

Dan: Whether that was a safe decision.

Jose: A safe decision, but to me it also becomes about power. I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t come out so that other people could know someone who was undocumented. I’ll never forget when one of my friends in DC, a political reporter, said to me that he just never thought that someone ‘illegal’ would ever be inside a newsroom. Maybe to clean, but not to write the story. [Laughs] That was a really honest response. If you think about LGBTQ portrayal in media, there are many gay people, out and not out, in Hollywood. Improving the portrayal of gay people is easier, because there are many gay people in positions of power.

Dan: Right.

Jose: Not so with the undocumented community, or even the immigrant community. So I think this is where power and race and class come into play, and the intersections of those identities. But back to the point you’re making, I would argue that the coming out of the ‘out generation’ of gay people forever changed the trajectory of LGBTQ rights in this country.

”The DREAMers have been the ones that have broken through. But I would argue they’ve broken through with a narrative that in itself is too limiting…We’ve created a class within this group of immigrants.”

Dan: Do you think that’s happening, or is going to happen, with undocumented people?

Jose: I think it’s only going to happen if the people who have allowed us to lie, to pass, and to hide come out, as well. All those people who are our mentors, coworkers, bosses, classmates, friends, and lovers, and people who go to church with us—I think it’s time for them to come out.

Dan: On the subject of influencing public opinion, I’m curious whether and how you think social media has changed the conversation about immigration.

Jose: I was a ‘dreamer’ before there was a DREAM Act. I’m from the generation of undocumented people who couldn’t find each other. Today, undocumented people, especially young people, can find each other on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I keep reminding a lot of undocumented young people I mentor about that, when they feel like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so depressed, I can’t believe this is happening…’

Dan: ‘I’m so alone.’

Jose: You’re not alone. All you’ve got to do is look. I didn’t meet someone around my age who was also undocumented until 2007.

Dan: Openly undocumented, right? Because I’m sure you did know—

Jose: Yeah, openly. A lot of that is because I wanted to get away from it as much as possible. I wanted to pass.

Dan: I know the feeling. Of course, there are all kinds of conversations about immigration happening on social media that aren’t being led by undocumented people. On the Define American website, you have a section for facts about immigration, and at the top of it, in big, bold letters, is the hashtag #FactsMatter. And you list some great facts there—for instance, that undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $12 billion to Social Security and $11.6 billion in state and local taxes each year, even though they’re not entitled to Social Security or many of the benefits that the state and local taxes would support. My question for you is, do facts matter on social media? It seems to me that the things that are really changing our understanding of immigration are more emotionally charged and more visual, whether it’s the photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy, being carried ashore in Turkey, or more recently, images of children in detention centers in cages. Do facts really matter?

Jose: What I’ve learned is that all of it matters. I’ve done, what, 1,000 events in 48 states in the past seven years. I’ll make assumptions, like, ‘Oh, I’m speaking in front of a chamber of commerce. I should just bring a bunch of facts and talk about taxes and what immigrants contribute to this country.’ And then what actually ends up having the greatest impact are the stories. Or I go to a church as a guest of a priest who’s giving a sermon, and I’m thinking of sharing stories, when it turns out some congregants just had no idea that undocumented people pay taxes. All of it matters, in my opinion. We can’t rely on one strategy and one point of entry. We have to meet people where they are.

Dan: Shifting from where people are today to the future: There are all sorts of new technologies that could conceivably transform immigration. There are drones that can patrol borders, for example, and facial recognition technologies in wide use. Just recently, facial recognition was used to detain a man in Washington, DC, who was using someone else’s passport to enter the US. You can imagine that it could also be used in the near future to locate and detain people who overstay their visas. Do you think, with the adoption and implementation of these technologies, that undocumented immigration will be less a part of the immigration conversation in decades to come?

Jose: Part of the misunderstanding about undocumented immigration is the reality that you can’t divorce it from immigration in general. I’m in LA right now, and the census is about to happen here, in 2020. Define American has been in conversations with several organizations about how to map out the mixed-status families in Los Angeles County, in which you have parents who are undocumented, and then the eldest kid is undocumented, but the two youngest siblings are US citizens. Or you have a family in which the mom is a US citizen, the dad is undocumented, and the kids are all US citizens. You can’t separate the undocumented family member from the US citizen family members, because they’re all in the same house.

So I would argue that we have yet to even have an understanding of what that looks like. The technologies still have not even allowed us to do that. But in general, I find it interesting how technology knows no borders. It’s improving at such a fast clip that we’re not even asking some basic questions. All of it is so borderless and limitless, and yet physical human beings are not. [Laughs] I have conversations in Silicon Valley with people in the industry who are all about connecting people around the world. I’m like, ‘Can we [first] connect them with their family members? That might be nice.’

“I define American by resilience.”

Dan: [Laughs] While we’re at it…

Jose: While we’re at it, can we do that? I’m really happy that Skype allows me to see my mom in the Philippines. But I think it would be really nice to actually get to see her in person.

Dan: Yeah. How long has it been?

Jose: Twenty-five years.

Dan: My God.

Jose: No amount of : and FaceTiming can fix that.

Dan: No.

Jose: I was recently with a dear friend, and I met her daughter when she was in seventh grade. And her daughter just graduated from high school and went to college. I’d never dropped off a kid at college before, so I accompanied my friend to drop off her daughter.

Dan: Very emotional.

Jose: I did not realize this. And then I started thinking that for so many of these parents, this is their first time being separated from their kids.


Jose: And it was so interesting being surrounded by all these parents who are, like, freaking out. They’re drowning their sorrows and anxieties away at the bar of the hotel, because they just can’t bear the thought that they’re going to be separated from their children for two months. It was really so emotionally jarring to see that and be a part of that.

Dan: I can imagine. Final question for you. Your organization, as we know, is called Define American. How do you, Jose Antonio Vargas, define American?

Jose: I’m a bit of a student of American history, and I love American history books. And I find resilience to be a tissue that connects all groups with each other. So I define American by resilience.

This article originally appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

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