The contentious debate over immigration was given a human face last week when Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine article. In a very personal essay, Vargas detailed his journey from boyhood in the Philippines to a prestigious journalism career in the United States. Vargas admitted to breaking a number of laws to conceal his citizenship status over more than a decade of working illegally for a range of high-profile publications, including the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and The New Yorker. The essay quickly rose to the top of the “Most e-mailed” list at the Times and landed Vargas, and his compelling story, on major media sites over the weekend.
Vargas’s personal story is vital because it complicates the usual terms of the immigration debate: outsiders vs. insiders, deserving vs. undeserving, legal vs. illegal. After all, one can’t help but see Vargas, though undocumented, as the consummate deserving insider—an American Dream hero incarnate, transcending race and class boundaries to make a real impact through his reporting. It’s nearly impossible to see a picture of the goofy adolescent, who watched “Frasier” to better his English or hear the story of his choir teacher’s admiration for him, and think “criminal.”
Publishing this piece is not the end of Vargas’s advocacy on immigration. The article coincides with the launch of new campaign Vargas co-founded, Define American. Its aim is to inspire a new conversation about immigration, particularly in unveiling the truth about what its founders call “a growing 21st century Underground Railroad” for undocumented immigrants who are helped along by teacher, pastors, friends, and employers. Vargas told his Twitter followers: “i’ve written hundreds of stories. very few on immigration. now, i will write solely about immigration.”
But Vargas, in writing openly about his immigration status in a climate of polarized views on the subject and increased criminalization of undocumented immigrants, is at risk of being deported. As he wrote in the article: “I…am working with legal counsel to review my options.” Jehmu Greene, co-founder of Define American and the daughter of two former undocumented immigrants herself, said of Vargas, “Of course he’s afraid. But he’s been living in fear for the past eighteen years. He has the support of the Filipino American Legal Defense Fund and he is taking responsibility for breaking the law.”
Vargas may have made the biggest media splash, but he is not the first undocumented immigrant to out himself for a cause. In 2010, thousands of undocumented immigrants told their stories publicly in an effort to humanize the fight for the DREAM Act—which would have created a pipeline for them all to achieve legal residency. The DREAM Act passed the House but failed in the Senate in December of last year. Marquette University student Maricela Aguilar, an immigrant from Mexico, was one of the student activists who outed herself. Despite the DREAM Act’s defeat, she didn’t feel her admission was made in vain. “I’d much rather have that out in the public than just living in fear,” she told The New York Times.
The bravery of Vargas, Aguilar and others shines a light on how dangerous this kind of transparency is for immigration reform activists—and how imperative it is that we not only celebrate their bravery, but protect them so they can continue their critical work. Their stories have the power to shift hearts and minds, not only because they humanize a contentious issue. Their stories demonstrate that there is no reasonable option for undocumented immigrants like Vargas, who don’t have an identity or a community rooted in the country of their birth, but whose only option for obtaining American citizenship was, as an immigration lawyer told him, leaving the country, accepting a 10-year ban on returning, and then applying to return legally. Their real life experiences reveal just how illogical, unsustainable, and unjust our current immigration policies really are, and how desperately we need comprehensive reform.