The story of an undocumented citizen

Marlena Chertock

Vargas writes about being an undocumented immigrant living in America, and the countless others who are as well. Photo courtesy of TIME Magazine.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, came out of the closet when he was in high school. But it’s taken him 12 years to come out of the “illegal” closet.

In 2011 Vargas wrote a story about his status as an undocumented Filipino living in America for The New York Times Magazine. Vargas is an accomplished journalist. He’s been published in the Washington Post, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He was also on the Washington Post team that produced Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Virginia tech shooting.

He talked about his path to founding Define American and the struggles of living as undocumented in America in Hoff Theater at the University of Maryland Tuesday night.

In a lot of ways, Vargas’ story is about searching for home. He left the Philippines in 1993 when his mother sent him to America in the hopes that he would have a better life.

“I just want to see my mom,” said Vargas, 32. He hasn’t seen her in 20 years.

But it’s bigger than him, as well.

Vargas is trying to tell the story of millions of people in the U.S. He’s working to shed light on people who have so often been forced into darkness.

“You know you go to school with us. You know you go to church with us. You know we shop at Wal-Mart together,” he said.

Vargas has been a journalist for a long time. Telling others’ stories and hiding his at the same time.

own narrative copyAs a journalist, he’s been surrounded by people who are fighting for their rights. “I was feeling very cowardly and very guilty and very scared. I was this visibly invisible person,” he said. “I decided that it was enough. I want to be in charge of my own narrative.”

He’s very close to this story because it’s his life.

Being an undocumented immigrant means living in a gray area. “There’s no process for me to follow. No line for me to get in the back of,” Vargas said.

To be undocumented in America is to be completely obsessed with documents, according to Vargas. “How can they say I don’t exist if I’ve written 800 articles? I’m all over Google,” he said.

In order to get a job at Subway when he was younger, Vargas bought a fake social security card, placed tape over the “not valid for work” message and photocopied it. He prayed no one would find out it was not valid. “These nine numbers are not supposed to work,” he said. “But nobody checked.”

Vargas wants immigration and immigration reform to be a topic that is talked about in the nation. And he wants people of all backgrounds to discuss its problems, realities and possible solutions. He longs for the day when equality is considered a shared equality.

He gets a lot of hate mail for these ideas and speeches. Here is an excerpt from one of his emails with the subject line “Get the hell out of America.”

“Your not from America and it’s not yours … and you wouldn’t understand it for obvious reasons.” (Grammar not corrected from the email).

“This is real. It’s in my inbox,” he said.

Immigration is an issue that shrinks down to language and the words we use, as well. Today the Associated Press dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from its style guide. This is a victory for immigration rights advocates who view the word as offensive, according to The Huffington Post.

“No human being is illegal,” Vargas said. “The action is illegal, not the person. The moment you call someone illegal, something terrible happens. You become better than that person.”

Many journalists do not want to call Vargas one of them. They claim Vargas has become too close to the story, has become a conflict of interest, has become the story.

Vargas isn’t entirely comfortable with this. He considers himself a storyteller and a filmmaker. And insists that he’s not an activist or a leader. “I wish I was writing a long story and it wasn’t me. It takes its toll,” he said.

But he doesn’t know where he would have ended up if he hadn’t found journalism. “To me it’s been a church that I’ve belonged to,” he said.

Vargas 3 bibles

One of Vargas’ high school teachers told him he should take a journalism class because he was asking too many annoying questions. He insists that as a nation we have to keep asking the difficult questions and having conversations.

Questions like what does U.S. foreign policy have to do with migration patterns? Or why wasn’t a better life available in the Philippines (when his mom sent him to America)? “We have to start asking these questions and connecting the dots or we’ll be here in 20 years talking about the same borders.”

Citizenship is more than pieces of paper for Vargas. It’s about recognition. “I’m an American,” he said. “I’m just waiting for my country to recognize it.”

Vargas seems to be trying to create a new type of journalism. One that isn’t afraid to be completely honest with its readers. A journalism that shares with full disclosure who the reporter is, why he or she is writing the story and why it may be important to him or her. A journalism that blurs the lines between conflict of interest and becoming a part of the story.

In the interest of honesty, this reporter is a white Jewish female. Her father’s family came to America through Ellis Island from Poland, and her mother’s family from Russia. Honesty in reporting is an unsettling thing for this reporter, but also an extremely important aspect. Here’s to hoping for even more open communication.

Find out more about Vargas and his Define American project. And share your story or invite someone you know to share his or hers by emailing

One response to “Striving for recognition, asking not to be invisible”

  1. […] First published in The Writers’ Bloc. […]

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