A Coming out Party for Jose Antonio Vargas

Today the journalism world is shocked by the announcement that Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning writer who has worked for The Washington Post and Huffington Post and published pieces in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, is an undocumented immigrant.

Vargas, whose mother sent him on a plane from the Philippines at age 12, announced he lacks legal status on the Define American website that was launched today. Like many others in his situation, he had no idea he was undocumented until attempting to partake in the coming-of-age ritual of driving a car:

One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. ‘‘This is fake,’’ she whispered. ‘‘Don’t come back here again.’’

Vargas narrates his struggles to deal with the situation, and his decision at age 22, to fight for his dream of becoming a journalist by fraudulently obtaining a driver’s license in another state so that he could fill out the paperwork necessary to get an internship at The Washington Post. For the next eight years, Vargas would rise in the journalism industry, while at the same time becoming more deeply entrenched into his secret status. From his perspective, acknowledging his sexual orientation was easier than sharing his undocumented status:

Tough as it was, coming out about being gay seemed less daunting than coming out about my legal status. I kept my other secret mostly hidden.

Vargas credits his newfound courage to the activism of people like the members of the Trail of Dreams, a group of four students who walked from Miami to Washington, DC last year to bring awareness to their plight as U.S.-raised undocumented students. Later on the year, a group of Chicago students from the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) led the initiative for a “National Coming Out of the Shadows” day. They led a march to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices in downtown Chicago.

Jose Antonio Vargas has acknowledged he is undocumented. Creative Commons photo by Campus Progress.

Jose Antonio Vargas has acknowledged he is undocumented. Creative Commons photo by Campus Progress.

These two actions were honored last weekend at the Netroots Nation conference with the Freedom From Fear Award, along with others who have demonstrated courage in fighting for a better world. The importance of their activism, similarly to Vargas’ coming out today, is that it highlights the intersection of identities of LGBT and undocumented youth. Both the Miami and Chicago actions featured LGBT youth prominently, making an impact on an immigrant community that still keeps LGBT advocacy in the periphery.

Like all these advocates, I was brought here at an early age — as a 13-year-old Argentine boy, to be precise. Like Vargas, I benefitted from access to higher education in California and to a driver’s license in the Pacific Northwest. But I also benefitted from a support network for undocumented youth that started at UCLA in 2003. Because of that support group, I became a public advocate for the Dream Act.

Through that work, I’ve had the opportunity to address many groups in churches and classrooms where I openly shared my story of being an undocumented immigrant, and growing up in the United States without legal status. On a few occasions, I was approached by people who were also undocumented but felt unable to share it with the world for fear of repercussions at home or in the workplace. I carry with me the memories of an L.A.-based architect, a dental assistant in Orange County, and many high schoolers who were afraid of coming out, and wondered if their lives would ever improve.

Today, Vargas’ action will have an impact on many people like them, and on many Americans who have been fed a narrow-minded view of undocumented immigrants by sloppy media coverage and an opportunistically nativist right-wing.

Vargas credits his close network of friends as a source of strength in making this decision, and mentions the Dream Act as a source of hope through the years; reminiscing of its prominent 2002 roll-out as a bipartisan bill championed by Utah’s conservative senator Orrin Hatch alongside Illinois liberal Dick Durbin. In the wait for the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform, the United States has lost the potential talents of thousands, while people like Vargas, myself, and the Dream activists have become exceptional success stories through hard work and, frankly, a bit of luck.

Vargas’ announcement shines light on his entrapment within an immigration system that offers deportation as the only response and appropriate punishment. Absent reforms that acknowledge that the system is broken, that people brought here as children bear no culpability for our lack of status, and that LGBT families should be equally eligible for immigration benefits, Vargas has no legal options to adjust his status. Still, he has chosen to become public to carry the national conversation on immigration forward.

Congratulations to Jose Antonio Vargas for taking this important step. May his story enlighten thousands and bring us closer to a fair and humane immigration reform.