An American Success

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out twice. The first time was at Mountain View High School when he announced to his class that he was gay after watching a documentary on Harvey Milk. The second time he came out was to a more sizeable audience last summer, when he revealed he was an undocumented immigrant in his New York Times article, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”

Last Wednesday, Vargas opened his both serious and comical speech at the University of Chicago’s International House by saying, “My name is Jose Antonio Vargas and I look Asian, which means I’m Filipino.” Throughout his talk–which left many members of the audience with damp tissues–Vargas played to his audience’s emotions in order to convince them that the United States immigration policy is racist and in dire need of reform.

Vargas began with his own story. In 1993, as a twelve-year old, he immigrated without his parents to Mountain View, California in the Bay Area. “I got there before Google,” he says jokingly. When he went to apply for a Driver’s License at the DMV in his late teens, he discovered that his green card was counterfeit. Since then, he has managed to evade the authorities while becoming one of the nation’s most celebrated young journalists. He has held coveted positions at some of the country’s most eminent publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post.  In 2007, Vargas won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Virginia Tech Massacre, but the journalist terms his acclaimed profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker to be the “high point of [his] career.” As a high school student, he says he thought, “Maybe I could write myself into America.” And that is exactly what Vargas has done.

His campaign, called “Define American,” is a mission to fix “our broken immigration system” and to create a “21st century underground railroad for illegal immigrants” to fill in where the government has failed. Vargas is critical of the “show-me-your-papers” bills being passed in Arizona, SB 1070, and Alabama, HB 56. He sees this legislation as the white man’s hypocrisy. “From 1892 to 1954, twelve million Europeans were welcomed into the United States at Ellis Island. And sixty years later, America is faced with the migration of another twelve million people.” The most important question, he says, is not “who, when, where, or how many,” but, “why do people want to come to the United States?” He answers this questions with another. “Why couldn’t I have a better life in Manila?” Vargas’ rhetoric is somewhat oversimplified. He seems to have overlooked the question of whether or not it would be sustainable for the United States to grant citizenship to every individual in the world who wants to become an American citizen.

To this day, Vargas, who has become a sort of celebrity activist, travels through airports in this country without a valid visa, betting each time that the authorities won’t catch him. “‘Why don’t you just make yourself legal?’ people ask me.” He gave the I-House audience his answer with a smirk: “Cause I’m a masochist and this is so fun.”