Ahead of Lawrence visit, Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas talks about ‘undocumented’ experience
photo by: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
As a journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas has always preferred asking the questions rather than being asked.
But since publicly sharing his secret of living as an undocumented immigrant for the past 25 years, he has had to answer plenty of questions himself.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker and founder of the nonprofit organization Define American will be in Lawrence as the Kenneth A. Spencer lecturer at 7 p.m. Thursday at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St.
As an undocumented person, he has found himself at the heart of the immigration topic as the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history drags on over President Donald Trump’s desire to build a multibillion-dollar wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
However, the current climate in the country doesn’t surprise Vargas, who recently spoke to the Journal-World by telephone. He said he could see what was going to happen to the country when Trump was campaigning.
“Back in 2015, I was telling my friends that Trump could win. Everyone thought I was nuts, but the minute he announced the wall was going to be the centerpiece of his campaign, I thought, ‘He is going to win.'”
For more than two decades Vargas has been trapped in what he describes as a journey of lying, passing and hiding.
“For me specifically, since I am not American by birth or law, I had to pass, as if I am one. That meant speaking, writing, thinking, acting as an American,” Vargas said. “More broadly, I think every group who comes to America passes as American.”
Coming to America
Back in 1993, when he was 12, his mother sent him from his home in the Philippines to live with his grandparents in California. He traveled with a man whom he understood to be a distant uncle, but who he learned later was a smuggler of people. His grandfather had paid the smuggler $4,500 to bring Vargas to the U.S.
His mother planned to follow but could never get a visa. If Vargas returns to the Philippines to visit her, he won’t be able to return to the U.S for at least 10 years, if not longer, he said. They have not seen each other for 25 years.
Vargas learned that he was undocumented when he was 16, after going alone to the Department of Motor Vehicles office to apply for a learner’s permit. After handing the clerk his green card, she told him it was fake and to never come back. But she, like others along the way, never reported him. He left in shock.
From a young age, he was surrounded by teachers and administrators who cared for him and became like family. He thrived in public school; one teacher encouraged him to be a journalist. While still in high school, he got a job covering city hall at his local newspaper. He was given a private scholarship to attend college and went on to write for the San Francisco Chronicle. After moving on to the Washington Post, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
Through it all, he lived a lie, providing a false driver’s license to get his jobs as a journalist — a profession that became a passionate mission.
“It has been a religion to me,” he said.
Telling the truth
Over the years, Vargas shared his story only with close friends, but he eventually grew tired of living the lie. He gave himself away in an essay, “My life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” which was published by the New York Times Magazine in 2011.
This past fall, his book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” was released. It tells his story and explores the sense of displacement he has felt since learning the truth about being undocumented.
“Here in the U.S., the language used to discuss immigration does not recognize the realities of our lives based on conditions that we did not create and cannot control,” Vargas said.
He wanted his book to resonate with all readers.
“You don’t have to be undocumented, gay or Filipino to understand,” Vargas said. “I wanted to write it in such a way you don’t have to be me to understand.”
Vargas believes we live in a culture in which some people use their identity as a barrier.
“You’re not that, so, therefore, you can’t feel or think this,” he said. “Identity should be a point of connection, not division. If you see me clearly as a human being, then you can see yourself.”
Lie. Pass. Hide. Vargas said he would argue that the range of human experience could be told from those actions.
“I have been recently doing a lot of reading about Susan B. Anthony, more generally what women have had to do historically to ‘pass,’ to be seen as equal to men. For far too long, gay people have had to pass as straight to be treated equally,” Vargas said.
Sharing his story
While in Lawrence, Vargas plans to meet with Patricia Weems Gaston, a former colleague from the Washington Post. Currently, the Lacy C. Haynes professor of journalism at KU’s School of Journalism, Gaston was an editor at the Post when Vargas covered the metro and lifestyle beats.
“Pat Gaston was so encouraging,” Vargas said. “She didn’t look down on me. She was amazing.”
During a phone interview with the Journal-World, Gaston said she didn’t know Vargas was undocumented until she read his New York Times article. She is amazed by what he has been able to do with his life.
“He encourages me by the fact that he left his job and he is going out and doing all these things. After finding out his status, I see him on TV or hear him on podcasts and I am bowled over — I knew him when,” she said. ” I am completely in awe. I have always been in awe of people who take their circumstance and go on to the next level.”
After writing his book, Vargas thought about taking the risk and going back to the Philippines, Canada or London. However, he realized he wasn’t ready to leave the people who were closest to him.
He also wants to hang around because a new elementary school in Mountain View, Calif., a mile from where he grew up, is going to be named after him.
“Only in America,” Vargas said, laughing. ” I’m trying to get a green card, not a school named after me.”
He considers it an honor, and the superintendent wants him involved with the school.
“It was such proof that every community has to decide who is welcomed,” Vargas said. “You can call me anything, but I am from that community.”
Vargas’ lecture Thursday at Liberty Hall is hosted by The Commons at KU. Tickets are free but required, and they may be obtained via thecommons.ku.edu or Liberty Hall. Vargas’ books will be available for sale on-site by the Raven Bookstore.