Author Jose Antonio Vargas On Work, Life Without Legal Status

Mar 5, 2019

Every day, immigrants living in the country illegally try to avoid detection. That fear of being found out has increased among many immigrants in North Carolina after a series of arrests by immigration officials last month.

Immigration rights activist and former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas knows a lot about that fear. His mother sent him to the United States from the Philippines when he was twelve years old. Only when he went to get his driver’s license at the age of 16, did he realize he didn’t have legal status. He talks about his life after that revelation in his 2013 film “Documented.”  

“It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. It means being separated from family. It’s been almost 18 years since I’ve seen my mother,” Vargas said in the film. “I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.”

And so in 2011, he wrote an essay published in the New York Times Magazine that revealed his secret. His book “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” just came out a few months ago. He’s speaking in Charlotte Wednesday night as part of a fundraiser for the Levine Museum of the New South. He joined “Morning Edition” host Lisa Worf.

Lisa Worf: You've had tremendous success in your career including being part of a team at The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer. How were you able to get so far without many people including your employers ever knowing about your status?

Jose Antonio Vargas: A lot of it has to do with the fact that people didn't think that someone like me could make it this far. So no one really questioned it. In many ways, I kind of just slipped through the cracks. And the whole time I was slipping through the cracks, I was wondering why I was slipping through the cracks.

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Worf: And you ended up having to go out of state to get your driver's license so you could work at your first newspaper job?

Vargas: Yeah. That was in the state of Oregon. At the time, Oregon allowed undocumented people to get licenses. They don't allow that anymore.

Worf: How much of the maneuvering that all immigrants without legal status have to do would people be surprised about?

Vargas: Oh my God. I think the American public would be incredibly surprised about all of it just because it kind of goes against the dominant narrative out there. It never ceases to amaze me when people come up to me — regardless of party identification — and asked me questions like, "Why can't you just go fix this thing?" Like as if it's something that I can just, you know, go to City Hall, fill out a form, and — poof — I'm an American feeling your welfare. I mean I cannot think of an issue as complex as immigration that is as misunderstood as it is.

Worf: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about how immigration works?

Vargas: The biggest is the process part. Most people don't know that there is no process for someone like me to follow to legalize myself — save leaving this country for 10 years and accepting what's called a 10-year bar, which was established when Clinton was president back in the mid-90s. The fact is that this issue in many ways has been a bipartisan mess. It did not begin with Trump — that's the first thing. The second thing is probably the fact that most people don't think that undocumented immigrants contribute anything to the country economically culturally.

Worf: You've made a point that you've always paid taxes — your income taxes, state and federal — even if it means doing that under unlawful identification.

Vargas: Yes. I mean, that's what a lot of undocumented workers do. We pay into the system. I mean the government knows this. Talk to the Social Security Administration. Talked to the IRS.

Worf: So why did you finally decide to out yourself as an undocumented immigrant and do it so publicly?

Vargas: Well for practical reasons my I.D. — my driver's license — my only form of ID was set to expire. You cannot function in this country without identification, right? And so when that was going to expire, I didn't know what to do. And so the option was either leave the country or come clean. So, clearly, I chose the latter — coming clean. The moment I did that, I knew that mine couldn't be the only story, right? There are so many other stories out there that are just as complicated and as complex as mine. So I started an organization called "Define American" with the sole purpose of asking a question: How do you define American? It means, how do you humanize and make accessible the same this issue that most people don't really understand?

Worf: Are you worried about being deported now?

Vargas: You know, I was worried about that eight years ago, seven years ago. I think once I kind of let it go, it opened up a whole different kind of reality for me. You know, I can get detained at any point. I can get deported, but so can millions of other people. And all I can do is live my life in the fullest way I can given these limitations. All I can do is not be scared of myself.

Worf: And they detained you, but obviously didn't follow through on anything then. Why? Why do you think that was the case?

Vargas: I have I have no idea, no idea. I don't know. I don't know why I'm such an exception, right? When I did this, I was prepared to not be seen as the exception.

Vargas' book "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen" was released in September. He's speaking Wednesday night at a fundraiser for the Levine Museum of the New South.