BY Advocate Contributors
August 10 2011 3:00 AM ET
Jose Antonio Vargas
30 • New York & San Francisco
When 12-year-old Jose Antonio Vargas set off from the Philippines bound for California, he had no idea that two decades later he’d touch off a firestorm that stretched from The New York Times to D.C. to the border of nearly every Southern state. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this year when Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, came out in the Times Sunday magazine — not as gay (he did that when he was still in high school) but as an undocumented immigrant.
His mother had sent him to live with his grandparents, both naturalized U.S citizens, in order to give him a better life. His grandfather doctored Vargas's Social Security card, and the youth — who felt he had to earn his citizenship — began to rely on what he calls the “21st-century underground railroad.”
It wasn’t an easy journey. “The biggest irony here is,” says Vargas, “this is America, where you can dream as big as you want, right? And the laws are created in such a way they dampen the dreams, whatever those may be, and there’s just something incredibly tragic about it.”
Vargas is doing his part to keep the dreams alive with his new organization, Define American, which encourages a dialogue about immigrants and why they come to the U.S. And in doing so, he’s taking a cue from the gay rights movement.
“I actually think the immigrant rights community has a lot to learn from the LGBT rights community,” he says. The tipping point for the latter, he says, came via technology, especially in the wake of the passage of California’s anti-equality Proposition 8. “A lot of those rallies that were against [it] happened on Facebook and were organized on Facebook and organized on Twitter. Americans leveraging these new tools to tell a story are really going to be important for us.”
But he’s confident of a breakthrough. “We have to figure this out. Illegal immigration is not just about undocumented immigrants. Illegal immigration is about all of us. And if there’s one point that I want to drive home — there’s one point that I think elevates the conversation and takes it out of the immigration ghetto that it’s been in — I think it’s that.” —Diane Anderson-Minshall