Three years ago, Jose Antonio Vargas swept into the immigration debate with something no undocumented person had: a national platform. In 2011, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist revealed in the New York Times Magazine that he was undocumented, and since then he has employed classic tactics—good storytelling, relentless energy, media savviness—to get out his political message. He has over 40,000 twitter followers. His journalistic training attuned him to rhetoric. He consciously named his new group “Define American,” not “Define Immigration” or “Undocumented.” He is not bound by medium, using print journalism, TV appearances, and now documentary film to present the narratives and needs of the undocumented. In public speaking, he sounds more like a friend chatting over a drink than a firebrand in the civil rights legacy; he skips from personal stories about his false green card to to a sly joke about reality TV to sharp commentary on the latest policy proposal on Capitol Hill.
His immediate celebrity was greeted with some skepticism in the very community he was joining. Many DREAMers and lifelong activists didn’t know where he stood, wondered why the national spotlight turned on him and never their rallies and testimonials to Congress. When Vargas presents to activists, he walks a delicate line: he praises their work, but emphasizes that he was not trained as an activist, that his tactics come from different disciplines. In an essay for Politico on July 11, Vargas said he was “the most privileged undocumented immigrant in the country. The visibility, frankly, has protected me.” On Tuesday, our immigration system rendered the most seen undocumented person in this nation temporarily invisible. Vargas was pulled into the dark apparatus that awaits the undocumented at every airport and government building and police station. Major press and social media coverage erupted with the news of Vargas’s detention. It was a rude reminder that Vargas’ stature, his contributions to American letters, his Time magazine cover, his national following, were not enough to fill his lack of papers in the eyes of the law.
In the video below, an excerpt from a 2012 interview with CultureStrike’s Jeff Chang (also reposted in print), Vargas paraphrases James Baldwin: “The world changes according to the way people see it.” Vargas is a storyteller whose work shifts our collective vision. He was released today, but our eyes are not on him—our eyes are on the thousands of children reckoning with their fate at the border, the thousands of innocents deported or awaiting it in quasi-governmental holding cells, the thousands of families awaiting reunification across borders and oceans. —Ryan Wong
Jeff Chang: So, there’s almost this thing [on the part of the right-wing media pundits], which is sort of like, “Okay, cool, we’ll let him in. We’ll let you guys [the undocumented youth who came as children] in. You guys had no [fault in] this. Your parents brought you over. But, if there’s somebody like you who wants to cross the border now—no-no-no-no-no… We’ll let you in, lets just not call it amnesty… We’ll just slide a few of you in.” Its almost like they’re trying to split the community into a sympathetic undocumented, and an unsympathetic “illegal,” and I guess, my question is, how do you deal with that?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Yeah, what would have happened if I were browner? And had an accent? A Spanish accent? Would I have been able to pass? To them, right now, I pass. I’m quote-unquote “sympathetic.” … My strategy was … you get in, and then you figure out how to push … .
We are now in control of the narrative. Do you understand? We are now, for the first time, in control of the narrative. The Republicans are like, LOSING THEIR MINDS. They don’t know what to say! They’re passing the thing like a its hot tamale just going all around town. They don’t know what going on! We’re in control of the narrative, we’re telling our stories. More and more people are going to be coming out. And more and more people who are supporters are going to be coming out. So I think its so important that we we’re engaging them in whatever way we can, and insist, by just simply being there, that we are human beings that cannot be denied.
And you can kind of see that, in terms of even just the reactions that we’ve seen from the Republican side to the Arizona decision yesterday [the Supreme Court's mixed ruling that upheld key provisions of the state's anti-immigrant law, SB 1070]. Like in a lot of ways, they almost don’t know what to say, around this stuff, right? But my question, okay, if this is your strategy, how have people been reacting?… I mean you’re going into the lions den every night. Are the lions still peaceful… What’s the situation?
I mean it’s interesting because in the immigrant rights community, I think people have said this to me and have said this to each other, what is Jose Vargas doing? Haha. Why is he talking to Lou Dobbs? I’m talking to Lou Dobbs because Lou Dobbs needs to be talked to, that’s why I’m talking to Lou Dobbs. I am here, I think we are now at the point in this movement where we have to figure out how do we broaden this conversation, how are we sure we’re not just preaching to the choir? How do we make sure that white people and black people feel like this is their issue too? If we are not doing that, then we are not doing our job.
What’s been fascinating are, how, the viewers are reacting. So I got this interesting email, of course there’s the crazy ones that just want me to go home, and I’m like, what home? My Mountain View city home, or my New York City home? … There’s been people who have been seriously just craving information. That’s why I was so happy about the TIME Magazine article, because there was an entire section in the article … that actually talks about the process [for legalizing immigration status] that isn’t here. The question that I’ve gotten asked most as I travel around the country is, Why don’t you just make yourself legal?
The media always wants to have that sort of central figure. How do you deal with that, on a person level: the fact that you see yourself as one in this large movement, but yet you’ve got to be the person now who’s going to be going on all these different types shows; when Obama wants to talk about undocumented issues, they’re going to call you. Those kinds of things?
That’s a big question, one of the biggest tensions I had earlier on was to, I’m used to, I’m a journalist, so I’m used to being the one interviewing people. I’m not used to being in this role … That’s very new for me, for being in the role, to be the one they want to talk to. And in the beginning, it was very uncomfortable, and especially knowing that people like [immigrant rights activist Gabby Pacheco]… have been doing this for so long. And I just showed up. And all of a sudden I’m taking more spotlight than they are. You know sometimes when I see them, I actually apologize. I’m just like, “I’m so sorry.” So that’s why I’m doing as much as I can … to stay on my lane, to not claim credit for something I don’t deserve, to make sure that I realize always that I am just one of hundred of thousands of people. … It is so important that we support each other—even though we don’t agree on our tactics, to support each other and realize we are in the same fight. That’s really all I can do.
We just had this executive order, we just had this court ruling, we got all these grassroots movements happening, at once, you’re out with media strategy… Where do we want to see ourselves in three months, on the verge of the election, in October? Where do we want to see ourselves?
Hm, I think that now we are on offense, and now that we are in charge of the narrative … I think it’s figuring out we make sure we expand it. I mean, from the very beginning when we started Define American [Vargas' social media campaign], that was a big [question]: How do we make sure that we’re not just engaging with immigrant groups? There’s already a lot of movement happening there … For me, what’s fascinating is, this feeling that this is the new normal. Do you sense it? That there’s a new normal in the way we’re talking about immigration in this country. So, after [the Obama administration's order to halt deportations of undocumented youth], the following Monday, Bloomberg had a poll, 66 percent of independents agreed with the President’s decision. The Republications are freaking out. Because they know they can’t just go on television and say, “THAT WAS WRONG.” This is why Romney still has not been able to answer the most basic question. Right?
So now I think, how do we keep this pressure on? How do we strategize in terms of making sure we are building the right kind of the coalitions? The proudest thing about this is the [headline on the TIME magazine cover]: “We are Americans.” Because we are …
And so for me, as someone who is a storyteller, that’s what I am most interested in for the movement. I’m going to try to do what I can do. You know, we only have one group, Define American. And we’re going to be partnering up with CultureStrike as much as we can, to figure out how we can bring artists, pop culture … Tomorrow I go to LA to do a show runner panel; it’s when you invite writers from TV shows and movies and producers and screenwriters, and ask them how they can write about immigration on their shows. You know, how do we integrate this? Can you imagine having an undocumented character on Glee? That’s my goal. That to me would be a big win.
So the question that I think a lot of people want to know is, is, how have you been, dealing with this on a personal level, this firestorm that you’ve been caught in for the last 11 days? … How have you been man?
[The night before Obama issued the “deferred action” order halting deportations], I got a call around midnight, from like, one of the big avocation advocacy people: “Jose, I have good news and bad news, which one do you want first?” And I’m like, “Good news!” “Obama [has ordered] deferred action, for about eight hundred thousand to 1.4 million people. The bad news: you’re too old [referring to the policy's arbitrarily set 30-year age limit—Vargas is 31].”
And I’m not going to lie to you, I was really fucking mad. I was really mad … . So, my frustration, and my anger – it was really anger, I think I started punching the wall, was… Do they understand that they’re fucking around with people’s lives? I was really angry with that. And because I was thinking of my grandmother, who of course the next day was like, “Why aren’t you included?”… And then I remember, this magazine was already out, so I remember having a bunch of copies in my apartment… and I’m looking at this, so 32 out of the 36 [young immigrants featured on the cover] qualify. There’s Caesar, who graduated magna cum laude from law school. … There’s somebody with chemical engineering. There’s Julio. How could you not be happy? America just embraced a million new dreams. … I got so many messages from the Dreamers that I know that were like Jose, dude, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. That was amazing…. How could I not be happy? But for me, personally, it’s going to be nineteen years this August that I haven’t seen my mom. And when people have been asking me what I am most scared of, I’m probably most scared of that. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen when I see her. I don’t know…and I can only imagine how many people are in the exact same situation. So, I just want to be able to face that, and to face her. And I just want to be able to live.