Aspen Ideas: Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas discusses immigration as undocumented worker |

Aspen Ideas: Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas discusses immigration as undocumented worker

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
Jose Antonio Vargas, an illegal immigrant and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, talks immigration with New York Times columnist David Brooks at the Aspen Ideas Festival Wednesday.
Erica Robbie/The Aspen Times

Jose Antonio Vargas is not hiding from the U.S. government anymore.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, activist and undocumented U.S. immigrant from the Philippines, Vargas believes the government is hiding from him.

“I cannot think of a more important concept in the world today than citizenship,” Vargas said this week before a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival, “and what it means to be a citizen.”

Vargas’ talk, “Undocumented Citizen: An American Story,” marked a first look at his upcoming memoir tied with the role of storytelling in changing the conversation about immigration in the U.S.

“It was like an emotional root canal,” the 37-year-old quipped of writing his debut book, which will be out in September.

Vargas said his editor, upon reading the first draft, asked him if he had ever seen a therapist.

Aimed at divulging the struggles and issues that illegal immigrants face daily, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” is divided into three parts: “lying, passing and hiding,” because, “that’s the experience of every undocumented citizen in this country,” Vargas explained.

Vargas’ mother sent him to the U.S., with plans to at some point follow, when he was 12 years old. Growing up with his grandparents in the Bay Area of California, Vargas thought that he was like the rest of the kids at school. It wasn’t until he applied for a driver’s license at age 16 that he discovered the truth: His papers, and thus his identity and the life he led, were fake.

Vargas would live in a constant state of fear and anxiety for the next decade and a half while earning his stripes as an accomplished young journalist for a slew of national publications. He recognized the irony of building a career in truth-telling while his own story was fraudulent.

Fed up with lying, passing and hiding, Vargas in 2011 revealed he was living in the U.S. illegally via a personal, tell-all essay in The New York Times magazine.

What Vargas has learned since his public confession seven years ago is how convoluted and misunderstood the immigration process is for undocumented citizens.

“The reality is (that) there is actually no process,” Vargas said Wednesday. He noted shortly after that he is “amazed” at how poorly most Americans understand or tend to underestimate the process (or lack thereof) to citizenship.

Because Vargas entered the U.S. illegally, his best shot at receiving citizenship would be to return to the Philippines and in 10 years — the bar period before the government would reconsider an undocumented person’s application — seek a job in the U.S. and apply for a green card on the basis of employment.

Vargas has consulted with immigration lawyers and done his homework. He assured the audience that if he could be a U.S. citizen, legally, he would be.

But Vargas considers himself American, and the U.S. his home. After all, he has spent most of his life here, he’s paid his dues in U.S. newsrooms to rise through the ranks, and he’s paid enough taxes that he “should be a Republican,” he joked.

In many ways, Vargas epitomizes a modern day American Dream — just not legally.

Moderator and New York Times columnist David Brooks asked Vargas to address the counterpoint that many immigrants earn their citizenship by enduring the process, however arduous, of entering the U.S. legally, and that undocumented citizens, by definition, “circumvented that whole system.”

Vargas, politely, disputed the notion of “earning” U.S. citizenship.

“Earn our citizenship … I don’t know what else you need us to do,” Vargas said.

He noted only a few of his accomplishments in an attempt to be seen in the eyes of the U.S. government as a productive member of society. He was part of the Washington Post’s Virginia Tech shooting coverage that won a Pulitzer in 2008.

Vargas has not seen his mother since he was 12 when he left the Philippines. He cannot risk leaving the country to see her, naturally, and she is unable to visit the U.S. from the Philippines because she is neither a property owner nor a college graduate, Vargas explained.

He notes fellow undocumented citizens who have experienced a relative’s funeral via a Skype video chat.

“That’s what immigration is,” Vargas said. “We don’t talk about it from this experiential way.”

Vargas is trying to change this, and the conversation around immigration, through his nonprofit, Define American.

Define American seeks to utilize “the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America,” according to its site.

Vargas launched Define American in 2011, after revealing himself as an illegal immigrant.

While immigration is as pressing a topic today as ever — and Define American is addressing this with its #ReuniteThe2300 campaign — Vargas reminded the audience Wednesday that the issues date decades before the current administration.

He even made a point of acknowledging that, amid a talk centered around immigration, the president’s name only arose at the end.

“This is bigger than Trump,” Vargas said, “way bigger than Trump.”