At age 12, his mother sent him from his home in the Philippines to live in the United States with his grandparents, naturalized citizens who reside in California. Unbeknownst to him, he arrived without proper documentation.
Today,Jose Antonio Vargas is a 38-year-old undocumented immigrant—unable to return home to his mother, who he has not seen in 25 years, without losing the life he built for himself in America, and unable to secure citizenship because he is undocumented.
As a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and immigration rights activist, Vargas shared what life as an undocumented immigrant is like at Franklin & Marshall College’s Feb. 28 Common Hour, a community conversation conducted every Thursday classes are in session.
The large audience in Mayser Gym was riveted by his stories about trying to grow up, attend school and find employment by lying, passing and hiding, as he described in his book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.”
They also were moved when he interrupted himself to step off stage for a few minutes to take a call from his grandmother who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
“She was diagnosed with breast cancer about a month ago,” he said, when he returned two minutes later. “The doctor said, ‘We don’t know how this is going to turn out,’ and my grandmother is hoping I will leave with her and go back to the Philippines at some point. So, there’s some very intense conversation about how I can’t do that.”
A reporter with The Washington Post, Vargas first decided to write about living in legal limbo in a June 2011 New York Times Magazine piece. Outing himself, he expected to be deported, but nothing happened. A year later, for a piece Time Magazine published, he called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ask why its agents hadn’t deported him.
“I actually called ICE myself,” he said. They knew who Vargas was, but they wanted to know why he was calling them. He said, “I don’t understand why you deported 400,000 immigrants this year. … What do you plan to do with me?” They told him, “We don’t comment on individual cases.”
Vargas said the exchange struck him as “a metaphor” for how people actually think about undocumented immigrants. “So long as people are mowing your lawns, cleaning your house or babysitting your kids, no comment,” he said.
“We are living through one of the most anti-immigrant eras in modern U.S. history,” Vargas said. “[President Donald] Trump’s campaign, election and governance are the culmination of the lies, myths and delusions that we’ve told ourselves about how we came to be who we actually are.”
He talked about the country’s founding on “the plunder and genocide of native Americans” and “built on the labor of imported slaves and constantly replenished by new generations of immigrants who from the very beginning have tried to keep other immigrants out.”
Unlike the 800,000 immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which permits certain undocumented youth from being deported, Vargas was ineligible for the program. He said the DACA youth are part of 43 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Vargas said he hopes one day to see his mother. Meanwhile, he hopes one day to become an American citizen.
“What does citizenship mean? It’s a question I hope all of us ponder,” he said. “I would argue that citizenship is actually more than the law we pass and its more than papers people don’t have. I would argue that citizenship is how we are as a neighbor. Citizenship is how we treat each other.”