José Antonio Vargas: ‘You Know Someone Undocumented’

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's become one of the nation's most high profile immigration reform advocates talks to Rinku Sen about his journey.

By Rinku Sen Oct 24, 2012

Join José Antonio Vargas and at Facing Race 2012, a gathering of hundreds of racial justice thinkers, advocates and culture makers, in Baltimore, Nov. 15-17. Register now.

José Antonio Vargas came out with a vengeance last year in a New York Times Magazine story about having lived without papers in the United States for more than 10 years. Vargas was on the reporting team at the Washington Post that won a Pulitzer for coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2008. But since his grand coming out, he’s founded the organization Define American and has been speaking all over the country from his unique position as a journalist who also happens to be gay, Asian and undocumented. He’ll continue that conversation with the Colorlines community at Facing Race 2012 in Baltimore next month. I talked to him in advance about how he’s managing his new role as a high-profile reform advocate and what we can expect to see from him next.

You’ve said that storytelling is the secret weapon of the immigrant rights movement. I also believe strongly in the power of narrative in movements. But what did you mean and why do you think it’s so?

When people have been stuck in the politics of something–anti-immigrant, pro-immigrant–storytelling takes us out of that binary thinking. Hannah Arendt, whose work I really admire, said once that "storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it." What stories have done is make an abstract political issue a very human and complex one. Whenever you hear a DREAMer’s story, that specific story becomes universal. It becomes about the American Dream, children wanting to do their parents proud. That’s why storytelling has been our biggest game changer.

A few weeks ago you put out a call for all journalists to stop using the word "illegal" in their immigration coverage. What has been the reaction to that call?

I first heard about the Drop the I-Word campaign the fall after it was launched. My friend Jehmu Greene told me about it. When I came out in the New York Times in June 2011, I was thinking maybe that it wasn’t worth the fight yet. The [June 2012] Time magazine cover empowered me a lot. The headline New York Times gave my piece was "Outlaw," [compared] to "We Are Americans" in June 2012. That was a significant change in the way I was able to communicate with journalists.

During my speech at the Online News Association, the moment I actually said "it’s time for us to stop using the i-word," people actually clapped. I thought the statement was going to land in utter silence. All I wanted to do, was to make it a conversation in newsrooms, and that is definitely happening. I’ve heard our allies say that going after the word "illegal" is a waste of time. I don’t consider that word to be a slice of the immigration pie–it is the pan in which the pie is baked. It is critical to the way we frame the immigration issue. This is not some little silly fight in the corner.

I come from a political tradition in which crossing a picket line is an absolute non-starter, never to be done. To make that speech on the i-word to journalists at the Online News Association, you crossed a UNITE/HERE picket line for a nationwide boycott of Hyatt hotels. Why did you make that decision?

This was the biggest speech I’d ever been asked to give in front of journalists. I was the most nervous I’ve ever been because it was like coming home. My family were service workers, my grandmother in food service, my grandfather was a security gaurd. We were an immigrant working class family, but I had no experience with unions at all. I first heard about the boycott six weeks before the speech. I tried to work hard to come up with a constructive solution. I made clear to UNITE that I’d be open to doing something before or after, maybe presenting some of the workers during the time I had. It was a non-starter, as you said. I was called a scab, a sell out and an elitist on twitter.

In my mind, having to navigate a career as an undocumented worker for 10 years would have counted for something, but it didn’t. No one has asked me why I did it. I hope in the future I can still work with unions. They’re a critical voice in this country. I respect tremendously what union organizers do; to have people think that I don’t is very sad to me.

So where is your working going next? What’s coming up for you?

Later this month, with the Birmingham News, we’re hosting a town hall meeting in Alabama. We’re making sure to invite not just activists, trying to have a wide range of people in the room. How do we make sure we’re not just preaching to the choir? Also Define American has turned into a mini-GLAAD, monitoring the media and how it frames the conversation and its impact on the culture.

I’m just interested in creating the space and trying to make sure that allies feel comfortable. This cant just be a Latino or Asian issue. Unless we convince white America and black America that this is their fight too, because we are their neighbors, because we live with them, we’re not going to make progress. We can learn something here from the gay movement. "Will and Grace" wasn’t just about Will, it was also about Grace. Everybody’s got a gay brother or gay roommate or gay co-worker. Let’s translate that to immigration. You know someone undocumented, even though they might be scared to come out.

The last space I’m working in is with young people, going to campuses, often to speak at events organized largely by U.S. citizens. We all need to do our part to create the space for real dialogue.


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Jeff Chang talks with Jamilah King about hope, change and how culture can shape politics in the age of Obama.

Negin Farsad talks with Channing Kennedy about drive-by hate, answering real questions and Muslim mainstreaming.