Monday, July 11, 2011

Jose Antonio Vargas: The New Face of Immigration Reform


More than likely, you have seen his face on the evening news and heard about a New York Times article that he wrote - but how much do you really know about Jose Antonio Vargas, the well-respected journalist that decided to reveal his status as an illegal immigrant living in the United States? Well, with his NYT essay and his activist organization, Define American, Vargas is hoping that all people will be able to learn about his story and, through it, finally be able to put a face on the problems with immigration laws in the United States.

It has been three weeks since Vargas had his essay published in the New York Times, in which he detailed the struggles he had to face navigating the American journalist workforce, all while being ever fearful that his undocumented status would be his undoing. It's not only important to hear of and learn about his plight, but to keep a close eye on what followed next. And after three weeks of festering, there has been a storm of reaction to Vargas' essay - both good and bad.

But first, a look into the story of the man himself. 12 year old Philippine native Jose Vargas, in an attempt by his mother to provide him with a better life than his home country could, was sent to America to live with his grandparents. Throughout his earlier years, Vargas was unknowing of the truth behind his American citizenship status - until he tried to apply for an identification card at the DMV. It was there that he was told that his green card was fake - and that he should not show it to anyone ever again. Stricken by the truth revealed to him, Vargas a promise to himself that he would do everything he could to prove that he is, for all intents and purposes, truly American.


"I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it."

From then on, Jose Vargas began a life-long quest to create an identity good enough for any dream that he wished to achieve. Early on were the speech lessons for getting rid of his accent; later, with a fake Social Security number that his grandfather had doctored for him, he was able to enroll in school and find jobs that would not ask for his citizenship status. All the while, he was learning about his calling in life - journalism. Internships with various publication were enough to sate his desire to become a better reporter and writer, and as high school drew to an end, he was not awaiting any acceptance letters - just a full time job at a publication.

If anything, Vargas was a master of networking. Despite only telling a few people about his citizenship status when it mattered most, the selected keepers of Jose's biggest secret worked hard to help him succeed. Using their connections, colleagues at the local newspaper that Jose wrote for worked to find scholarships for him that applied regardless of citizenship status. Finally, Vargas found himself at San Diego State University.

More opportunities came to Vargas throughout and after his college career, but as a budding journalist - someone whose livelihood was dependent on truth - his options were very limited. It was then that Jose made another decision that would shape the rest of his working life.

"What good was college if I couldn’t then pursue the career I wanted? I decided then that if I was to succeed in a profession that is all about truth-telling, I couldn’t tell the truth about myself."

Various other moves were made in order to get Jose the information that he needed in order to get where he wished to be - an Oregon driver's license using his close friend's address as proof of residency, for example - which was as a prolific writer for popular publications. His work brought him through the news rooms of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and most recently, the web-based Huffington Post. His journalism is not without it's merits, either - along with a team of reporters covering the Virginia Tech shootings, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize; also, Jose wrote a dream story when The New Yorker commissioned him to profile the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. For these accomplishments, Vargas believes that he has achieved more than he could have ever imagined, despite his secrets.

But recently it became clear to Vargas that keeping his story in the shadows for so long was no longer something he could keep up. The constant fear of being found out and the inability to be a full participant in multiple happenings throughout his life have crippled the man that gained a well-respected reputation with everyone that he has worked with. As such, he had established within himself a new-found resolve and wrote the essay which brought the New York Times the biggest wave feedback it has received in recent months. And it's in the aftermath that Vargas' story brings to light the issues that many undocumented people - Latino, Filipino, Chinese, whoever - face in this country today.

Will he be deported back to the Philippines because of his breaking the law so many times in his otherwise already illustrious career? NPR doesn't quite believe so - after all, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) now only targets individuals that are proven dangers to the safety of the American people - an initiative that I would have been happier to see four years ago when I marched in Chula Vista against it's forceful methods with Latino women and children in the area.

Former employers of Jose's have come forward with their mixed reactions regarding his story breaking - though they feel duped by the "hustler," as the San Francisco Chronicle's Phil Bronstein calls him, the new face of immigration reform is still, undoubtedly, the face of a friend. Vargas has accolades rivaling those of many American-born journalists, and he will undoubtedly still have the support of his reliable network of friends - for everyone else that he knew, perhaps a cautious distance awry will have to do.

For now, however, Vargas has put his efforts forward in his brainchild, Define American. The organization's published goals are to create the dialogue and connections between immigrants, their supporters, and government officials that have otherwise never been established. The tag line is a simple one: "Let's Talk." Jose hopes that by finding more relevant faces that can represent the fight against a broken immigration system, he can help facilitate the passing of on of the DREAM Act, which would give amnesty to any illegal immigrants of 'good standing' that came to the States as minors and have been here for at least 5 years, barring some conditions (like 2 years of military service or gaining a degree at an institute of higher learning) are thus met. His hope is that by defining what being American is outside of all the paperwork and the arbitrary and binary alphanumerics that seemingly identify every citizen, the masses will realize the worth of the people that their legislation is trying to hard to put away.

But the question remains - how will the legal ramifications for Vargas' revealing his status play out? For better or worse, his actions did break numerous laws, and despite getting permission to use the names of individuals in his support network, his colleagues are also accomplices in his lifelong hustle. For now, however, the reactions are still pouring in, and it remains to be seen what end will come.

Until then, however, Jose's story stands as an inspirational tale of how he, through whatever means necessary, achieved his American dreams.

"Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream."

1 comment:

  1. Josh, what a terrific post! It's a fascinating story, and even more interesting to see how the face of immigration reform is an Asian American. This certainly does bring a touchy dilemma--does the hard work and contributions to society outweigh the legality of Jose's status? Personally (and this is just my personal opinion), I'm in favor of weighing the accomplishments of the people before considering the legal standing. This is not to say that ignoring immigration laws should be done, but rather to voice my concern that putting too much focus upon legal standing will create an aura of national insularity and distrust of so-called "outsiders", which leads to social stagnation and xenophobia. That's my two very liberal cents. I hope other people read this and comment on it further! I think you're doing a wonderful job, and I'm aching to read more of your posts, Josh!

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