Two years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had made a career telling other people’s stories turned the camera on himself. After coming out as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times Magazine essay, Jose Antonio Vargas is on a mission to correct the misinformation about “illegals” in this country and to show audiences that a broken immigration system is really about broken families.
by Ada Tseng
When Jose Antonio Vargas was 12, his mother sent him from the Philippines to the United States to live with his grandparents. Relocated to Mountain View, California, Vargas pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America every day at school, not realizing anything was awry (other than the fact that his mother was curiously unable to follow him to the US like she had planned) until he went to the DMV to take his driver’s permit test at age 16. A woman there told him that his green card was fake – and warned him not to come back there again.
Vargas’ grandfather, a naturalized citizen, then admitted he had saved up money to purchase the fake documents to bring Jose over. He had assumed Jose would grow up to work in the service industry, he’d live a low-key life until he married someone with papers, and then it would all be OK. It was all to give his only grandson a better future. Jose himself remembers as a kid in the Philippines, thinking that his grandparents lived an affluent life in America, while in reality his grandfather was a security guard and his grandmother worked in food services.
Two things derailed his grandfather’s plans for him: 1) Vargas came out as gay in high school, making the prospect of getting a green card through marriage much trickier (this was the ‘90s) and 2) the teenage Vargas, instead of letting the news defeat him, convinced himself that he could earn the right to call himself an American. In the next decade, he would work hard, get a job, pay his taxes, be successful, even earn a Pulitzer (as he did in 2007 as part of the Washington Post team covering the Virginia Tech shootings), and prove he had the right to be here. That this was his home, just like any other American.