By Alexander Reed Kelly
Jose Antonio Vargas testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. AP/Susan Walsh
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, job creator, civil rights activist—Jose Antonio Vargas is something of a model American. But he is also one of America’s 12 million undocumented immigrants, and that fact is determining how he is treated by the U.S. government.
On Tuesday, during a trip in which he sought to document the crisis of thousands of migrant children fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, Vargas was arrested by immigration authorities at a border crossing in McAllen, Texas. His eight-hour detention became a top trend on Twitter with the hashtag #IStandWithJose before he was released with orders to appear before an immigration judge.
The episode is the latest in nearly two decades defined by the experience of living as an unofficial American. At age 16, four years after his mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the United States, Vargas was informed that the documentation provided by his family was fraudulent when he tried to apply for a driver’s license in California. He kept his immigration status secret and continued his education with the help of friends and teachers and further false documentation that helped him avoid deportation.
In high school he discovered journalism. He began an internship with a local paper and later became a copy boy with the San Francisco Chronicle. Barred from applying for traditional financial aid, he secured a private scholarship with the help of his school’s principal and superintendent. He earned a degree in political science and black studies at San Francisco State University and interned during the summers with the Philadelphia Daily News and The Washington Post.
Vargas was hired at the Post immediately after graduating in 2004. In 2008 he and his colleagues won a Pulitzer Prize for their stories about the Virginia Tech shootings. His coverage, including of the 2008 presidential election, paid special attention to the increasing importance of social media in American life. At the Post he wrote a column called The Clickocracy, and when he left for The Huffington Post in 2009 he led development on the site’s new technology and college sections.
But Vargas’ most important work was ahead. In 2011 he revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant in a widely read and shared essay for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The piece detailed how he lived in fear for 15 years, working, lying about his citizenship and paying taxes along the way, and won a Sidney Award from The Sidney Hillman Foundation for “outstanding … socially-conscious journalism.” The confession cost him work as he had no visa that would allow him to be employed.
Undeterred in his cause, Vargas founded Define American in 2011. The nonprofit advocates for informed and humane discussion around immigration issues. (It was involved especially in the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants citizenship via military service or education.) In 2012, Vargas and the organization succeeded in getting The Associated Press to shed the traditional phrase “illegal immigrant” in its writing and instead use the term “undocumented.” He subsequently worked on a number of documentaries on the subject of immigration, including the 2013 autobiographical film “Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American.” (Though Vargas himself can’t gain employment, U.S. law enabled him to hire 40 people to work on his latest film.)
Vargas’ role as a national face for undocumented immigrants was confirmed by his latest encounter with the authorities. Five days before his arrest, on July 10, he spoke at a news conference in front of the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen and organized by the immigrant youth advocacy group United We Dream. It is one of the sites around the country where immigrant children displaced by violence and poverty caused in their home countries in large part by U.S. international economic policy are being sheltered. The sheltering is occurring against the wishes of protesters who complain that their tax dollars are paying for the care of “foreign nationals.” Vargas spoke powerfully about the duty human beings have toward others in need, regardless of their nationality. He specifically targeted conservatives in office.
“The way many news organizations and the way many pundits in the media and the way many politicians, particularly in the Republican Party, are talking about this humanitarian crisis is an affront to America and to Americans,” he said. “A few days ago, a headline story on CBSNews.com, the headline was: ‘Is the Surge of Illegal Child Immigrants a National Security Threat?’ That was the headline. These children are not illegal; they are human beings. And they are not a national security threat. The only threat that these children pose to us is the threat of testing our own conscience.”
As Truthdig reported Wednesday, Vargas wrote via Facebook of his arrest, ending by asking the question behind his advocacy organization:
“As an unaccompanied child migrant myself, I came to McAllen, Texas, to shed a light on children who parts of America and many in the news media are actively turning their backs on. But what I saw was the generosity of the American people, documented and undocumented, in the Rio Grande Valley.
I’ve been released by Border Patrol. I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country. Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family.
With Congress failing to act on immigration reform, and President Obama weighing his options on executive action, the critical question remains: how do we define American?”
Improbably given his origins, which he says involved “a lower-middle-class family of ... service workers” in which writing wasn’t valued, Vargas has made himself into exactly the kind of American his fellow citizens need, a champion of the rights of all people to live peacefully, securely and with educational and economic opportunities. He embodies the humane, pioneering spirit outlined in the nation’s founding documents and thus deserves the support of those who mistakenly view him and others who were simply born elsewhere as opponents. Papers or not, he is our Truthdigger of the Week.