An Unverified Life

Jose Antonio Vargas is an immigration activist, filmmaker, and journalist. He is also an undocumented American.

November 2, 2013

You publicly announced that you are undocumented in a New York Times Magazine essay in June 2011. This really struck a chord with readers. Did you expect this reaction?

I wasn’t sure whether anyone was going to read it. To my surprise, it was “most shared” on Google for two weeks. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 11.1 million people in the United States are undocumented. About 4.5 million children born in this country have at least one undocumented parent. They are U.S. citizens but their parents aren’t.  I want to show that this issue is completely integrated in American life.

What prompted your immigration awareness campaign, Define American?

I decided to publicly out myself [as undocumented] two summers ago. I needed to use this story, my narrative, to underscore the larger narrative of immigration in America. People like me are seen as illegal; we are seen as criminals, the “other.” That’s how the media has portrayed us. As a journalist and a filmmaker, my goal was to help change that narrative. As far as I’m concerned, I’m an American—I just don’t have the papers to show you. You get to this question of, “How do you define an American?” Do you define it by pieces of paper? Do you define it by your accent in your speech? Do you define it by what people look like?

Do you think immigration reform can and will be a boost to the housing market? How so?

Unequivocally, immigration is the most controversial yet least understood issue in America. Immigrants come to this country to work. Immigrants don’t come here to be on welfare. Once we become legalized, I would imagine more of us would be buying houses. The [undocumented] ones I know have done it with a relative who has papers. I would imagine giving status to people like me would be a boost to the economy all around.

When you were 12, you emigrated from the Philippines to California to live with your grandparents. Your hopes of pursuing legal status during high school were crushed when an immigration lawyer said you’d have to leave the country for 10 years. You’re 32 now and living in Manhattan. Have you ever bought a home?

I haven’t been able to, although I have the money to do it. I’ve been scared. I have met with immigration lawyers—what if I bought a property and I was found out and deported? When you’re undocumented, you’re in limbo all the time. You’re always wondering if you’ll get caught and what’s going to happen to the house. I’m not a full member of society. Even though I pay taxes, I can’t vote. But, to me, buying a house or buying an apartment, you could argue it’s the most stabilizing thing to do. Once you buy a property, you say, “This is my home. This is my space. I’m investing in this.”

Are you still a target for deportation?

I was, but my being so public has protected me. There has been a liberation just being honest about the whole situation.

Are you optimistic about genuine immigration reform?

I can’t be a pessimist, because I’m alive. If I were a pessimist, I wouldn’t have made it this far. I know something is going to happen.

In addition to The New York Times essay, you were on the cover of Time for an article you wrote called “We Are Americans.” Was it terrifying going public?

It was. I’d be lying if I didn’t say so. People I went to middle school with didn’t know. Some of my own relatives didn’t know. You keep it a secret.

For the past two years, you’ve been working on your film “Documented,” which started as a documentary about the Dream Act but became more personal as you told your own story. Were there any surprises during the filming?

To me, the biggest surprise was that I expected that there would be a big gap between what people know about immigration and what the facts are about illegal immigration. What I didn’t anticipate was how oceanic it is. I expected it to be a river. Just the vastness of the misinformation and the ignorance [was astounding]. But once you tell them your story and how you got here and why you’re here illegally, Americans want to help. We just haven’t really talked to each other. All we’ve been doing is talking at each other. And the media is in between us.

This year, thanks to you and your campaign, the Associated Press dropped the phrase “illegal immigrant” from the AP Stylebook. Why is this so important?

That was the biggest win for us. That’s the biggest wire service in the country. Look, this is not about political correctness. I am here illegally. I am here without authorization. The act is illegal. Absolutely. There’s no dancing around the fact I’m here illegally. But me as a person? I’m not illegal. That’s pretty clear. That phrase “undocumented American” describes me. I’m an American. I don’t have the documents to show you, but I am an American.

Kristin Kloberdanz, a California-based freelance writer, contributes to TIME Magazine and other publications.