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An Undocumented Immigrant Asks What It Means to Be American
YCteen Staff, with reporting by Breanna King and Julieta Velazquez

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has worked for major newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. But last summer, he surprised the nation when he revealed his own story, exposing himself as an undocumented immigrant in an article in the New York Times.

Vargas told YCteen how he immigrated from the Philippines at age 12, sent by his mother to live with his grandparents in California. After “coming out” as undocumented, Vargas started an online campaign called DefineAmerican.org to raise awareness about the plight of other undocumented immigrants and to ask what exactly it means to be an American.

YCteen: How did you find out you had immigrated to the U.S. without legal immigration documents?

Jose Antonio Vargas: I went to the DMV when I was 16 to get a driver’s license. I showed the woman my green card and she told me my green card was fake. So then I rode my bike home and confronted my grandfather, and he confirmed that the woman was right, that the card wasn’t legal.

It was incredibly disorienting…realizing that I wasn’t supposed to be here. But I’m here. So how do I make the most of it? How do I succeed as much as I can regardless of the circumstances? That was the adjustment I had to make.

YCteen: How was your life here affected by being an undocumented immigrant?

Vargas: The hardest thing about that is I have to lie. I had to lie about my status because I wanted to work, I wanted to be independent. I didn’t want to rely on anybody else to take care of me. That was a big thing. Whenever you lie to people, especially people that you love and care about, it’s really difficult. I couldn’t keep lying. That’s why I decided to disclose my own status.

YCteen: Why did you come out with your story in the way that you did?

Vargas: I wanted to make a statement that undocumented people come in all shapes and sizes, and we have all different experiences. The reaction has been very gratifying, to get so much support from people, strangers. And not just from immigrants, but also from American citizens who have been so supportive. But there’s also a lot of ignorance and anger out there, which is understandable. It’s also sad.

YCteen: What do you think about current immigration law?

Vargas: We need to drastically upgrade the system. The system doesn’t reflect the reality of immigration in this country. Immigration is probably the most fundamentally misunderstood processing system. Americans, in general, just don’t understand how it works. They don’t know how many years people have to wait. People don’t know that families are separated. People don’t know that undocumented people like me actually pay taxes. So the whole system needs a serious re-organization, a serious look. It needs to happen because these are people’s lives we’re dealing with.

YCteen: How do you feel about the term “illegal alien?”

Vargas: First of all, I hate the word “illegal” from a grammatical way. “Illegal” is not a noun, and human beings are not “illegal.” But more than that, I’m against it because I don’t want to think about what it’s like for a kid in middle school sitting in a classroom and hearing that word “illegal” and thinking that refers to him or her. Words matter. We live in America—the First Amendment gives us freedom of speech, which is great. But with freedom of speech also comes responsibility. Calling somebody “illegal” is not a responsible thing to do.

YCteen: Have you applied for residency or citizenship?

Vargas: There’s no way for me to apply for residency or citizenship. There’s no line for me to get in the back of. There’s no process for me to go through.

What do I do if I get deported? America is my home. This is where I grew up. My family is here. My grandmother’s here. My friends are here. If I get deported, I’m prepared for that. I was prepared for that from the very beginning, but America will always be my home.

YCteen: Can you explain why there is not a line for you to get into?

Vargas: That is the hardest problem right now. For most people like me who are living in the shadows, living in this underground economy, there’s no way for us to come forward and say, “All right, here I am, I’ve been here, I’ve been paying taxes, how can I get in some process to become American?” There’s no process for that. Once you’ve lied and admitted to lying about being in this country, they put a 10-year bar on you. I’d have to go back to the Philippines, where I haven’t been since I was 12, accept a 10-year bar from coming to this country, and then apply to get back to this country.

YCteen: Have you met other undocumented immigrants in the same predicament as you?

Vargas: Before I came out, I didn’t really know a lot of people who are undocumented. After I came out—I’m completely maxed out on Facebook. You’re only allowed 5,000 friends and many of the friends I’ve accepted in the past few months are undocumented people. It’s really interesting how our stories are different, but they often share the same thing: the need to survive and the need to succeed and the want to be American. As for advice [to other undocumented people], there may be doors that keep closing, but you cannot give up on yourself.

YCteen: Tell us about the “DefineAmerican.org” project.

Vargas: It was very important, when I decided to do this, that it couldn’t just be about me. I’m just one person; it’s just one story. How can I create a campaign that is about elevating and reframing how we talk about immigration in this country?

To me, the biggest takeaway from the organization is to say that illegal immigration isn’t just about undocumented people, it’s actually about American citizens, too. All throughout my life, I’ve had mentors, American citizens who have helped me out all these years, who have said to me “keep going, don’t stop.” So, if every undocumented person in this country has at least three or four people in their lives, American citizens, who are helping them out, then we’re not talking about an issue that’s impacting 11 million people. We’re actually talking about an issue that’s impacting 55 million people.

YCteen: What can others do to support immigration reform?

Vargas: This is about all of us elevating the conversation. Like, when we hear someone calling someone “illegal,” we have to call them out on it. We have to collectively stand up to what’s being done. Because I think what’s happening in this country is that a very small but loud minority has taken control of the conversation about immigration. There’s a very large silent majority out there who haven’t really spoken up on this issue because they don’t know how to think about it and they don’t know how to talk about it. But there is a way to talk about it, to stand up to it.

It’s important for young people to speak out on this issue. I’m 30, but people who are a lot younger than I am...have grown up with undocumented people. You went to school with them. You probably don’t even know that you have a friend who is undocumented because they’re afraid to talk about it with anybody.

The fact is, our country is changing. The country is looking more and more diverse, looking less and less white, and more and more black, Asian, and Latino. That’s your generation. It’s really important that your generation speaks out on the issue and realizes that this is something that impacts everyone.

Since this story was originally published, President Barack Obama signed an executive order allowing many young undocumented immigrants relief from deportation. The order also allows young undocumented immigrants to get legal work permits. To be eligible for deportation relief and legal work permits you must: have been brought to the U.S. before you turned 16 and currently be younger than 30; lived in the U.S. for at least five continuous years; have not been convicted of a felony offense, multiple misdemeanors, or a significant misdemeanor offense; and have graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military.

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