Undocumented Immigrants and The 21st-Century Underground Railroad: Q&A With Jose Antonio Vargas


Undocumented Immigrants and The 21st-Century Underground Railroad: Q&A With Jose Antonio Vargas

  • Undocumented Immigrants and The 21st-Century Underground Railroad: Q&A With Jose Antonio Vargas

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    Jose Antonio Vargas.jpg
    Jose Antonio Vargas is done coming out of the closet -- he's done it twice already. The first time the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist came out, it had to do with his sexuality. The second time, he told the world about his precarious life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. He speaks Monday at UW, but was kind enough to chat with Seattle Weekly earlier this week.

    Vargas has written for The New Yorker, Washington Post (where he won the Pulitzer for his coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007), and The New York Times Magazine, which published his essay, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" last June. His provocative public confession that, when he was 12, his mother sent him to the U.S. from the Philippines with a fake passport, stirred debate about what it means to be an "illegal immigrant."

    "It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am," Vargas wrote, explaining that only a handful of friends and colleagues knew his secret. "It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don't ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me."

    Since then, Vargas has continued his work as a journalist, but shed the veil of objectivity when it comes to his views on immigration reform. His latest project is called "Define American," a campaign that seeks to "bring new voices into the immigration conversation," specifically teachers, pastors, community leaders, and others who have worked -- not always openly -- to help undocumented immigrants live peacefully in this country. For more info on his talk Monday at UW, click here.

    Seattle Weekly: What's latest on the fallout from your New York Times essay? Last I heard, Washington state cancelled your drivers license.

    Jose Antonio Vargas: Yeah, I lost my Washington license. I'm trying to figure out why exactly I lost it. Apparently they said something along the lines of I didn't return a piece of mail I was supposed to return. I've been traveling like crazy for the past 11 months now. Next month will be a year, I can't believe it. It feels like it's been three years.

    SW:What are you trying to accomplish with Define American

    JAV: The purpose of Define American, this media campaign, is really to focus as much as these good Samaritans, or as I've been calling them, provocatively, members of the 21st-century underground railroad. Immigration has been the province, for the most part, of Hispanic and Asian groups. I understand why that's been the case but, at the end of the day, white people and black people have as much of a stake as Latinos and Asians. The thing I've been really trying to get across is undocumented people like me have support networks.

    If every undocumented person has at least five or six people in their lives, American citizens who help them out, people who go to church or school with them, a mentor or teacher, if everyone has four or five, we talking about an issue that impacts at least 70-80 million people. That's what missing in coverage of immigration.

    SW: How do you balance being an objective journalist with your advocacy on this particular issue?

    JAV: People have been calling me an activist or advocate, but, as far as I'm concerned, I'm working on the biggest journalistic story of my life, it just happens to personally affect me. As far as I'm concerned the biggest story is why did that teacher help me out? Why did the principal and superintendant try to get me a college scholarship? Why did the editor of Washington Post keep my secret? At the end of the day, they answered to a higher calling. They all understand how broken the laws are, and that there's something bigger than the law. That's what interesting, and it's part of the journalistic story.

    It's not that I'm uncomfortable with [being called an advocate.] We're writers -- words matter. When people call me an advocate, my question becomes, 'What exactly am I advocating for?' I'm merely advocating for my life, to tell the story we haven't told. Immigration is quite possibly the most fundamentally misunderstood issue in America. A lot of people don't understand how it works.

    I had a woman in Iowa at a Mitt Romney rally tell me - she was so wonderful - she goes 'Why don't you just make yourself legal?' I looked at her and I was like, 'Umm, because this is so much more fun?' (Laughs) I dunno, because I'm a masochist and it's fun to get emotionally naked in front of you?' She wanted to drag me to her senator's office. She's like 'Maybe Sen. Grassley can help you.' This is a Republican woman who supports Mitt Romney. As far as Republicans are concerned, immigration is people crossing the borders and waiting for jobs outside of Home Depot, and not paying taxes, and not speaking English. And they're all Mexican.

    We all know that narrative doesn't capture the complexity and the fullness of the story. When people call me an advocate or an activist, I tell them I'm doing what I've always done: I tell stories. The difference is, I'm personally involved in this one. I think it gives me more credibility that way.

    SW: Why does coming out give you more credibility? Is it because transparency is such a valued trait in journalism these days?

    JAV: Especially, because everything and everyone is searchable. That was part of my paranoia. I profiled Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker in fall of 2010. My next article was coming out in New York Times Magazine. My career, I was lucky. It just kept getting better and better. I dreamed of writing for New Yorker when I was in high school, and couldn't' get through an article without picking up a dictionary or encyclopedia because they used all these ten-dollar words. I thought if I'm ever going to be a serious writer, I have to write for this thing.

    The lies were getting bigger and bigger. I was implicating more people, what else was I going to do? I was so sure somebody was going to find out. I was so sure somebody was going to ask, 'Hey, Jose has never left the country since he was 12. He's never talked about his family.' Even my own friends wondered why I never took trips overseas. I was so myopic, it was all about my career. I thought I could succeed my way into citizenship. I actually thought that.

    After the Zuckerberg profile, I felt like I had to really face this before my life could go on. I was just about to turn 30, I was like, before anything else happens, I just have to really come to grips with this.

    The transparency part is really important because we're living in a time when everything and everyone is searchable. We'd be lying to ourselves if we don't admit that what we bring to stories is our own system of reality. My system is totally different than yours. We can argue about objectivity all we want, but at the end of the day, I'm an undocumented gay American. That's my prism. Gay marriage is a really good analogy. There's a debate where gay marriage, people say, gay journalists cant be objective writing about gay marriage, openly gay or closeted gay or whatever. I actually think straight people have as much bias when it comes to gay marriage. Why won't you let us get married? Our having a gay marriage doesn't devalue your straight marriage.

    SW: Do you still feel obligated to give the opposition's perspective when you write about immigration?

    JAV:There's a book called The Race Beat, about white journalist reporting on civil rights movement in the south, how they finally just had to say 'This is about human dignity.' What has happened with gay rights and immigration rights -- and by the way those are two defining issues of our time -- and what they have in common is they're about American identity. What's interesting, when we write about, or frame gay marriage it's always stuck in this box of pro- and anti-. There's a lot of false equivalency happening. It became stuck in the way politicians frame the issue, right? It so rarely becomes how people live with this stuff.

    Being undocumented, it's not a political issue, at least the way I live it. The daily gray area that I live in is way beyond politics. And yet the media, for the most part, frames these issues in largely political terms. As journalists in this more transparent, connected era, what is our moral responsibly to frame these issues in much more responsible ways? Not every issue has two equal sides. If that were the case, where would we be with black civil rights?

    SW: The big issue here in the Pacific Northwest has been the expanding Olympic Peninsula Border Patrol. Any thoughts on the agency's expansion to areas removed from the actual, physical border, and the recent lawsuit that alleges racial profiling by them?

    JAV: I believe it when people say a country has the right to defend its borders, but the bigger question here is have you ever built a border that could withstand human will? So long as people need jobs and have people to feed, they will cross whatever border you put in front of them.

    Mind you, as the latest stats have already shown, for the Mexican border this is the lowest number of illegal crossings since Nixon was president. Mexican migration to us is at all-time low. As for the Canadian border, I don't know what you can build to stop people from getting here. You can try and spend billions, but we're not asking 'Why do people want to come here?'

    SW: Why is it so hard to convince conservatives and even some moderate voters that immigrants play a vital role in the country's economy? How can that fear of 'They're taking our jobs!' be overcome?

    This idea that foreigners are taking our jobs, for a lot of people this is a very visceral thing. Some people you can convince with facts, like when I say people like me paid $11.2 billion in taxes in 2010. Yes, the IRS doesn't care if our papers are in order as long as we pay taxes.

    For other people it's so visceral, those people, the other people, is where it gets really hard. You cannot separate anti-immigrant fervor and anti-immigrant sentiment from the dramatic demographic change this country is going toward. Having been to the south -- Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina -- people [there] are like 'Those people are just taking over our states. They speak a different language, they have different food, they're taking over the schools..."

    It's a very visceral fear, frankly I don't think white, lower-middle class, or even upper-middle class conservatives don't have the vocabulary to even talk about this...My favorite Martin Luther King Jr quote is 'History will record that the greatest tragedy in this period of social transition' - and I think we are in a period of social transition - 'is not the strife and clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.' We can't afford for people to stay silent. They don't think they're a part of the conversation when really it's as much theirs as anyone else's.

    This is where we miss something like Will and Grace. There's another parallel [of immigrant rights] to gay rights. That show was a real tipping point for gay rights, not just because everybody knows someone who has a gay roommate or a gay best friend.

    SW:I never thought of it that way. You really don't see too many illegal immigrant characters that aren't total stereotypes in movies or TV shows.

    We've had very early discussions to figure out how can we get undocumented people in TV shows and movies. Can you imagine and undocumented student on Glee? Pop culture plays a huge role in this. Perception has become reality. This is definitely a movement, the immigrant rights movement, it has only just gotten started and it will only get bigger. I feel like my career actually just got started...

    ...I have to be really good at what I do. In some ways, my life kind of depends on it. What interesting here too is, when I came out, quote unquote, which is such a weird phrase, I've done it twice now, I'm done coming out. It's funny because I had to be very centered and grounded about what my role is in this whole thing. I'm not an advocate. I'm not an activist. I'm not a leader. I'm not an organizer. I'm not a politician. As far I'm concerned, the Dream Act students have been leading and organizing long before me. I just showed up.

    My coming out, this is an all hands on deck moment, and we all have a role to play. Journalism is my church, man, it's my church. I can't think of a better time to be good at what I do.

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