Jose Antonio Vargas Came Out as Undocumented, NOT “Illegal”

So why do so many of his journalism colleagues still insist on using the slur to describe him? Monica Novoa explains why it is long past time for news media to Drop the I-Word.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Jun 23, 2011

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas shares his moving story, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" this week in New York Times Magazine. It’s a must-read for all, as he candidly walks us through the pain of family separation, offering a vivid and emotional description of his experiences with the broken immigration system, the guilt and risk that came with hiding his status, and the bravery required to come out first as gay and then as undocumented to people he describes as an "underground railroad" of friends and mentors, and finally even to employers.

Vargas’ story has drawn enormous media attention and drove "undocumented immigrant" up to a top-trending term on Twitter yesterday. But it’s a shame that in the dissection and retelling of his story, a fine point has been lost on many of Vargas’ colleagues: He came out specifically as an undocumented immigrant and not as "illegal." The distinction is a central part of his story. He is rejecting a legally inaccurate, dehumanizing and racist label that helps to prop up an ignorant and limited immigration debate, along with all of the violence and unconstitutionality the concept of an "illegal" human being engenders.

At the age of 12, Vargas said goodbye to his mother and the Philippines and moved to the San Francisco Bay to live with his grandparents–or, his Lolo and Lola, in Tagalog. He got rid of his accent and learned slang the way many immigrants and non-immigrants do: by watching sitcoms and making friends in school. In becoming American, he embraced a career in journalism. And he excelled. By age 26, he had already won a Pulitzer, as part of a team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings for the Washington Post.

Vargas says he’s lived the American Dream, but, "I am still an undocumented immigrant." In this watershed moment, Vargas, understanding the power of language, chose his words carefully and thereby caused thousands to reflect on and model a humane way to describe immigrants that don’t have the proper documentation.

Yet, even as thousands of people and several responsible media outlets (and the author and subject of the story) adopt accurate and ethical language, several others still choose to use the i-word, most outrageously in headlines:

  • CNN: Pulitzer Prize winner: I’m an illegal immigrant
  • Slate: Jose Antonio Vargas reveals he is an illegal immigrant
  • Fox: Journalist Announces He’s Illegal on ABC News

Despite some people re-tweeting these inaccurate and racially charged headlines, the term "undocumented immigrant" became a Twitter trending topic on Wednesday, even above Beyonce. Vargas tweeted from his @joseiswriting handle:

Undocumented Immigrant is trending. So let’s drop "illegal" and "alien." No person is illegal or an alien. Follow us @defineamerican.

Vargas has launched the Define American project with the Tides Center, in order to open up the conversation on immigration and "[shine] a light on a growing 21st century Underground Railroad: American citizens who are forced to fill in where our broken immigration system fails."

Vargas explains that there is no "line" for him to wait in. As we have covered here at Colorlines, our broken immigration system grows more out of control every year, and it is generating a human rights crisis, with 85 percent of immigrant households comprised of people with both undocumented and citizen status. So as the Obama administration sets new records for deportations, it is ripping families apart.

Of note, Filipinos have the longest wait time for family-based visa numbers. The January 2010 Visa Bulletin shows waiting time as follows:

  • Unmarried sons and daughters of citizens: 16 years.
  • Spouses and children of permanent residents: 4 years
  • Unmarried sons and daughters of permanent residents: 11 years
  • Married sons and daughters (21 years or over) of citizens: 18 years
  • Brothers and sisters of citizens: 22 years.

When we take the i-word out of the equation, we can start asking why this system is not working, and stop putting the blame for its failures on the people who are struggling to make sense of it–and who are then portrayed as not respecting laws that are inhumane in the first place.

The concept of a person as illegal is one that political operatives manufactured to shut down conversation and stoke racial fears. With the help of immigration attorney Dave Bennion, we compiled a style guide for covering immigration. In the style guide, we address the i-word from political, journalistic and legal standpoints:

The i-word is not neutral. It is racially charged and has been promoted by restrictionist advocacy organizations like NumbersUSA 4 and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), founded by eugenicist John Tanton. Frank Luntz, a Republican Party strategist, recommended operatives promote use of the term "illegal immigrants" in a 2005 memo, explaining that it would encourage an understanding of immigrants as criminals and create politically useful division among voters. With clear direction to use "illegal immigrant," the shorthand slur has become just as common among media pundits and political campaigns.

In regards to immigration law:

"Illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" are incoherent terms from the standpoint of immigration law. Immigration judges and ICE attorneys don’t use the terms because they are meaningless in the context of immigration proceedings. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws, does not use them either.

The Associated Press Stylebook still supports the use of the term "illegal immigrant," and is often cited by reporters to excuse the proliferation of this slur. Despite the AP’s i-word entry, however, some journalists are choosing to do the right thing. In 2007, Lawrence Downes, a member of the New York Times editorial board, wrote "What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand?." In his piece, Downes makes the case that use of the word "illegal" pollutes the debate, blocks solutions and reduces a large and largely decent group of people to a criminality. And a crucial point: "as a code word for racial and ethnic hatred, it is detestable."

There is also a growing list of outlets that don’t use the term, including the San Antonio Express-News, the Miami Herald and organizations that have endorsed our campaign to Drop the I-Word. We implore all journalists, media outlets and social justice-minded individuals to join these leaders and take the pledge to Drop the I-Word today at

For more information on our style guide, go here.