Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has written for the Washington Post and The New Yorker (among other publications) shocked readers earlier this year when he revealed that he is an undocumented American. After nearly 15 years of hiding his secret, he’s now speaking up about his own story and speaking out against the current state of immigration policy.
1. Fifteen Minutes: How has your life changed since you “came out” as undocumented?
Jose Antonio Vargas: If you have a driver’s license, give it a real, big, tight hug. I can’t drive—which sucks, because I love driving. [And] I can’t work. But I’ve never felt more liberated. It’s funny, I feel liberated and restricted at the same time. I feel like my job as a journalist just started. I feel like I’m working on the biggest story of my life.
2. FM: You seem really comfortable when you’re talking about your life. In reality, do you still have a hard time talking about these things so openly?
JAV: I’m in a transition. I was a reporter, so I’m used to asking the questions. That’s weird. I hear myself giving sound bites and cliché answers and I’m cringing inside to myself. I’m just trying to be as honest and as truthful of my reality as I can.
3. FM: You’ve mentioned discovering you were undocumented when you were 16. How old were you when you came to the United States?
4. FM: And when was the first time you really felt like you were undocumented?
JAV: College. Applying to college.
5. FM: Why college?
JAV: I mean, this was in 1999-2000. The DREAM Act wasn’t even around yet. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t apply for financial aid ... I remember [asking], “How am I going to get into college?” You know, thankfully some guy decided to send me to school for free. A private donor. I’m not sure I would have made it without that.
6. FM: How was your relationship with your family affected by your discovery? How do you respond to rhetoric referring to undocumented minors as paying for ‘the sins of their fathers’?
JAV: You know, I support my mother financially in the Philippines. I love my grandparents. I love my grandmother. I have a great relationship with them. They’re my family. When people say “don’t blame them for the sins of their parents”– what’s the sin? They wanted to give their kids a better life. I mean that goes back to the Irish and the Italians and the Eastern Europeans that moved to this country.
7. FM: How do you feel that being gay and being undocumented, two different parts of your identity, intersect?
JAV: They’re all me. It’s so interesting people use the term ‘coming out,’ you know? It’s coming out to society, but in many ways it’s like ... you know at the end of the day this is my reality. This is my life. This is my system of reality.
8. FM: How has that affected the way you see yourself in relation to other people around you?
JAV: Just because [other people] are not undocumented, or because they’re not gay, doesn’t mean that we’re any different. We’re all alike. We’re all the same. I’m just as human as the next straight guy or as human as the next documented person.
9. FM: You’ve mentioned “coming out” twice, once as gay, and the next time as undocumented. How were they different? Or how were they the same?
JAV: I mean, I held onto [being undocumented] the longest, because you know, I wasn’t sure. They were both hard in different ways. And it’s funny, because ... as somebody who’s gay, I am a second-class citizen in this country. And as someone [who is] undocumented, I am a second-class citizen in this country. And yet I couldn’t be more American than I am.
10. FM: When people talk about immigration, and particularly legal immigration, we rely on phrases like “illegal alien” and “undocumented,” but many people take offence to such terms. Do you agree with the terms “illegal alien,” or “undocumented”?
JAV: You know, I don’t agree with it. I don’t agree with illegal. There’s part of it that is purely, actually literal and also just grammar. People are not ‘illegal.’ I don’t want to get into the whole political correctness ... but words matter.
11. FM: You seem kind of critical of the way journalists report on illegal immigration. Would you say that’s true?
JAV: Yeah, I think journalists have not looked at these issues as fully and as thoroughly and as comprehensively as they should. Arthur Miller once said that a good newspaper is a country talking to itself. We can’t really talk to ourselves if we don’t know what the realities are, if we don’t know all the facts. And I think a lot of facts need to get out there that are not out there.
12. FM: Like what?
JAV: Undocumented people are paying taxes. They are contributing to society. They’re not all Hispanics. They’re not all day laborers—although bless the ones who are working really hard as day laborers—they’re also doctors and lawyers. They also want to go to college. They also want to contribute and keep giving back to society.
13. FM: How would you recommend journalists tell this story?
JAV: I think the best stories are always intersections, where lives and cultures and generations intersect.
14. FM: What changes would you like to see?
JAV: I want solutions. All we talk about is the problems. Where are the solutions? Where are the solutions coming from in the campaigns? And real solutions. Electronic fencing? Deporting everybody? We know we’re not going to do that. So let’s get serious.
15. FM: As a closing note, can you tell me a little bit about the work you’re doing to advocate for immigration policy reform?
JAV: We’re telling stories and we’re elevating the conversation—that’s what we’re doing. If you go to defineamerican.com, you’ll see some articles there too.