Jose Antonio Vargas probes emotional toll of being an “undocumented citizen”

Jose Antonio Vargas and the cover of his memoir “Dear America.” (Author photo by Elena Seibert)

Jose Antonio Vargas states in the first line of his memoir “Dear America: Notes of An Undocumented Citizen:” “I do not know where I will be when you read this book.” He has no physical address these days, so when we speak by phone before the book’s release, I ask him where he is.

Vargas reveals he’s sitting on a beach chair in San Clemente, California. His friend Alida Garcia, who appears in the book, is getting married, and he’s guarding the wedding tent.

“I’m staring at the Pacific Ocean, which I’ve always had conflicted feelings about,” he says.

Vargas is one of those people who goes to Hawaii or Miami without going to the beach. For him, water — not land — represents borders and walls.

It is water that has divided him and his mother in the Philippines for 25 years, since he flew with an “uncle” to California to live with grandparents and wait for her. Four years after he arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Vargas learned he had no immigration documentation when a discreet woman at the DMV denied him a driver’s license and tipped him off about his fake green card.

His future had been a gamble for his family when they put him on that plane with the coyote, a human smuggler.

But he got his name on pieces of paper by becoming an accomplished journalist, winning the Pulitzer Prize with the Washington Post in 2008. With the support of mentors and friends, he was able to finish college, get a driver’s license and secure a passport from the Philippines.

To survive, Vargas learned to lie, pass and hide — all actions he refuses to do now. After he outed himself as undocumented in a 2011 New York Times Magazine story, Washington state revoked his drivers license. He was briefly detained by Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas, in 2014 at the airport when he tried to board a plane.

Since 2011, Vargas has been very outspoken about his status, which he shares with 11 million others in the U.S. Vargas is now founder and CEO of Define American, a nonprofit that employs multimedia storytelling — especially film — to combat anti-immigrant hate. Now that immigration debates have risen to a fever pitch, Vargas hopes “Dear America” will shed light about the lives of undocumented immigrants whose uncertain future is under threat.

I asked Vargas, who will appear with Ijeoma Oluo for a Town Hall event on Sept. 28, some questions about his life, work and his new book. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Annie Kuo:

Given your background in journalism, are there questions you are asking the world which might not otherwise come up, and a particular way you approached this book?

Jose Antonio Vargas:

Asking questions of people in power, institutions, and systems at play is what I’ve been trained to do since I was 16 [on the high school newspaper]. I originally intended for this book to be a migration manifesto, with an academic or policy focus, but when I read about 35 books on immigration, what was really lacking was the psychology of it. I decided to do a psychological investigation of my own mental health… the emotional toll, the mental health cost of all of this. My editor asked me to write down my 10 most painful experiences. I ended up writing 16 to 18. Looking at that list, they all fell under the themes of lying, passing and hiding.

We’d found a different canvas to paint on. Once the book’s structure was decided, we had to figure out, what’s the tone? I love long, complex sentences with semicolons and ellipses — I grew up reading The New Yorker, but the book is more staccato. There are so many emotional scenes in the book that I really tried to pull back and not overwrite. There’s a version of that scene where I’m pulled over by the state patrol for speeding that’s ten pages long. But it doesn’t feel real… it’s not how I experienced it. So I had to find the language and allow myself to tell it as I was in the moment. Not like I was reporting my life.

The book is partly dedicated to the 250 million immigrants to countries that have previously colonized and imperialized them. To say people are coming here for a better life– that’s too simple. In reality, a lot of people are coming to countries like the U.S. whose policies have affected the economic state of these countries. Why couldn’t a better life exist in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala? How’d that happen? Who started the drug war? These are the questions!

Annie Kuo:

The other part of your dedication is to Mama and to every American who’s made you feel at home in the United States. Tell us about the allies who helped you along the way and why you felt it was important for them to be in the book.

Jose Antonio Vargas:

I find the construction of whiteness and what it means to be one of the defining issues of our time and I tried to integrate it. I don’t think “allies” captures what they’ve done. It minimizes the humanity, the relationship. “Allies” comes from the activist place. That’s how I’ve always seen it as. I would argue that allyship isn’t enough. It’s fine, it’s good, I’m happy to have it, but it’s not sufficient. Our lives are determined by relationships. Where are these relationships? Where is it coming from?

There’s a propensity among people of color to paint all white people with the same brush, which ironically is what we allege white people to do to all people of color… neither of which is helpful. It’s interesting that the book has all these black and white people, and yet the book is about immigration which most people think involves Asians and Latinos. I came from a high school where there were many affluent white people who were willing to help me out. Like how they helped me get a driver’s license. No one said, “Are we breaking any laws here?” They just saw what was the right thing to do. It never came to this place where they were condescending to me, it came from this really natural place.

In journalism particularly, I was mentored by black women. I don’t know how that happened. The Washington Post has the most diverse newsroom in America. Maybe they thought, “Oh my God, this kid looks so lost.” [laughs] Black women have a very special place in America given the history of this country. Talk about toughening up. There was always this honesty… They expected a lot from me to try to be excellent.

Annie Kuo:

You talk about being at home in America, and yet in the book you also say you do not have a home. How do you define “home?”

Jose Antonio Vargas:

How do you create and define a home? Who are the people who make you think and feel at home? Who gets to constitute what that is?

I’m still that little kid on the plane who thought all I needed was to have a good resume, good career and make money, and I could earn citizenship. It wasn’t until I was locked up with those boys [in Texas] that I could write and process that. There’s the journalist part of me that wanted to understand it. I had to shut that out and realize “home” was not something I had to earn.

Annie Kuo:

Shall we talk then about the importance of language in the national conversation about immigration?

Jose Antonio Vargas:

I follow the Maya Angelou school of thought on words. “Words are things..” They’re in the air, before you know it, they’re in your hair. They’re in your clothes. They’re inside of you. We live in words. The people who have the power to define these words have the power not just of language but the power of governance. The governance of how we think of immigration has been largely defined by this language of illegality and criminality. My goal of seeing this work, flipping this script, is to question the very meaning of “citizen.” What does it mean to be a citizen? When it comes to “illegal,” I make no bones about it. I am here illegally without authorization from the government. Right? But I as the person am not illegal because people can’t be illegal. We are so accustomed to that perspective that you know what the consequences of that corruption has been.

We are so used to calling people illegal that we have no problem locking children up. “Of course they broke the law.” That is where it’s led to. When I saw the headlines in CBS News, “illegal immigrant children…” CBS, the home of “60 Minutes”… I couldn’t believe it. Illegal immigrant children?

Annie Kuo:

Why did you end the book with that cliffhanger quote from Mama?

Jose Antonio Vargas:

I thought it was only appropriate that my mother got the last say in the book. I thought it was important. The mother, the reason I am here, she is the one you hear from the last. In many ways the book starts with her. The gamble. In many ways she becomes the subtext. You don’t hear from her throughout the whole thing. I didn’t want to have to think about her. That’s the most painful part of it. I didn’t have the journalistic skills for that. That requires a real emotional root canal. To try to figure out what I think and feel about this woman that I don’t know.

Annie Kuo:

Do you think you’ll choose the answer before it’s decided for you? Do you think you’ll be made an example of?

Jose Antonio Vargas:

I have no idea. And I’m okay with the fact that I don’t know. I’m a planner, very intentional, always on deadline, always grinding. There’s freedom for me in that knowing that anything can happen. My lawyers are prepared. With the publication of this book, i have to be prepared for anything and everything.

Annie Kuo:

In this time of tumult, how do you maintain strength and hope?

Jose Antonio Vargas:

I’m going to quote [James A.] Baldwin on you. “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” When I get depressed or get down, I pick up a book. I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Frederick Douglass. When I get down, I realize people have gone through things much harder than this. And whatever we’re going through, someone has already gone through it. Someone has already survived it.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Alida Garcia. The Seattle Globalist regrets the error.

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