Jose Antonio Vargas on How America Talks About Immigration

A conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented activist.

Image Michael Conti
Immigrant activist Jose Antonio Vargas has been giving talks all over the country on immigration. (Michael Conti)

Jose Antonio Vargas wears many hats. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for new organizations such as The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. He’s an Angeleno, Filipino, and gay. He’s also undocumented.

Vargas found out he wasn’t an American citizen at the DMV counter when he was 16, and for a large part of his adult life, kept this fact hidden. Then, in 2011, he came out about his legal status in very powerful personal essay for The New York Times Magazine. In it, Vargas recounted the burden of keeping such a massive secret, and concluded:

I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.

Since that piece, Vargas has transformed into an activist. He’s traveled to cities and towns across the U.S. to talk about the very issue he had to be silent about for most of his life. He’s been on the cover of TIME magazine and deemed “the symbol of the immigration debate” by CNN. He’s also started a non-profit called Define American to make immigrant issues more visible.

In 2016, Vargas still feels that the quality of the political debates on immigration lacks humanity, especially on the Republican side. In response he’s launched #EmergingUS, a crowd-funded multimedia platform through which he hopes to promote better dialogue on race, immigration, and American Identity—issues that are central to this presidential election and that will continue to be important in future ones.

CityLab spoke with Vargas over the phone to learn his views on how America is talking about immigration. Here are highlights from that interview, condensed and edited for clarity.

How have immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, contributed to U.S. cities and the economy?

Could you imagine New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco—every major city in America—without not only immigrant labor, but undocumented immigrant labor? Could you imagine?

Definitely, that's one of the biggest travesties and tragedies of this campaign cycle. We know that the economy of this country … and the economy of these cities would collapse without undocumented labor. And yet, how the candidates talk about these workers, and the way the media brings up this issue, is so lacking in that kind of humanity.

I live in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is, in many ways, the epicenter of the undocumented population in the country, just because of the sheer number of undocumented people in California. If [you] drive through MacArthur Park, you go to Pacific Palisades, you go to Beverly Hills, just the undocumented labor alone—the gardeners, the construction workers, the janitors, the nannies—Los Angeles would collapse without.

The fact about Social Security is very important. I'm one of the people who've contributed a lot of money to Social Security and I don't have any access to it. None of us [undocumented immigrants] have any access to it. The Institute of Taxation Economic Policy … released an update saying that undocumented immigrants collectively paid $11.6 billion in state and local taxes.

You’ve mentioned that Republicans are particularly harsh when they talk about immigration. How have the Democrats been tackling it?

They've offered much more detailed policy proposals that are much more realistic. They speak to the reality of what's actually happening in our community—may it be on the ICE raids, may it be on DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival] and DAPA [Deferred Action for Parental Accountability], and what's about to happen in the Supreme Court.

Bernie Sanders, I think, has done a really effective job in pushing Hillary Clinton to step up her game in terms of making sure that she's addressing immigration as fully as possible. Of course, Hillary Clinton has been criticizing Bernie Sanders for not voting for the immigration reform bill of 2007.

It seems that Democrats and Republicans are on such opposite planets when it comes to this issue that it's kind of hard to nitpick between Hillary and Bernie Sanders when you're hearing what the other party is saying. You and I both know nothing can happen without the two parties getting to a compromise.

#EmergingUS just released a teaser video showing reactions of U.S. immigrants towards Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s comments about letting the “good” immigrants in and kicking out the “bad” immigrants. Could you talk a little about the effect of those categories on the immigrant community?

When I outed myself as undocumented almost five years ago now, it didn't occur to me that within the immigrants’ rights movement, people saw me as the exceptional DREAMer—the exceptional "good" immigrant DREAMer. Now mind you, I've aged out of the DREAM act. I am only a DREAMer because that's what the media calls immigrants who are kind of young.

But even within the immigrants’ rights movement, there's this thing about being a “good” DREAMer—the DREAMers you see on television—and the “not-so-good” DREAMer. There's Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas, who both have DACA, who work for Bernie Sanders. Lorella Praeli, who used to be undocumented … is the director of Latino outreach for Hillary Clinton. There are articles written about these “high-profile” DREAMers. So in my Facebook feed, there's all these undocumented young people who are like, "Well, I guess I'm a low-profile DREAMer."  

My grandmother was a food server, my grandfather was a security guard. I come from a family of farmers in the Philippines. I don't know how many people have gone out to harvest rice. There's nothing unskilled about that—that's hard work. There's these ideas of good immigrant/bad immigrant, low-skilled/high skilled, bad DREAMer/good DREAMer—I think we have to question these constructions.

So there’s this idea that some immigrants deserve to be here because they’ve “earned” their citizenship.

Bill O'Reilly once said to me, "Jose, just so you know, you don't deserve to be here." I just didn't know how to react to that statement on live television. After I got off the air, I started thinking, “Wait, what did Bill O'Reilly ever do to deserve to be here?" People always say that undocumented people like us should earn our citizenship. I would like to politely ask my fellow Americans—I would love to ask Donald Trump—what are you doing to earn your citizenship?

The moment I realized that I was in this country illegally when I was 16-years-old, I have been trying really hard to “earn” my citizenship every day. And if that is a question that should be asked of us, I think it's a question that's only fair to ask those people who ask us that question.

I know some people who immigrated to the U.S. legally at a time when it was arguably easier to do so, and because they had the resources. They, too, sometimes believe that undocumented folks didn’t “earn” their citizenship.

Absolutely. There's that divide between immigrants who are like, “Wait, we did this the right way—we waited, we paid this money. Why can't people do it the right way?” That is based on the assumption that people don't want to do it the right way.

I've been waiting for 23 years now, and I can wait 20 more years if you think that's fair. But not having a process [to immigrate legally], to me, is the problem. Undocumented people in this country are in a state of perpetual purgatory. Of course I'd get in the back of the line, if there were a line somewhere.

What else is missing from our discussions on immigration?

We don't even talk about why people move! Why do people move? What does U.S. foreign policy and trade agreement have to do with people moving?

I'm Filipino. The Philippines used to be a protectorate of the U.S.—we used to be a territory like Puerto Rico. I was in an event in North Carolina, an elderly white man said to me, “Why are there so many of you here?” All I could say to him was, “Sir, we are here because you were there.”

Even that conversation of the roots of migration and the role of U.S. foreign policy and the trade agreements and economic agreements—do you hear that discussed at all? No.

For the months to come and beyond, what role do you see changing demographics playing?

Almost in every debate—Republican or Democrat—you hear that America is at stake and American identity … is at stake. Absolutely.

In the past 50 years, 55 percent of the U.S. population growth has come from Latino and Asian immigrants. In the next 50 years, 88 percent of the population growth is going to come from mostly Latinos and Asians. We're undergoing a demographic earthquake unlike what we've ever seen. And there are aftershocks everywhere.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.