Jose Antonio Vargas Comes Out Again 

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

August 16 2011 4:00 AM ET

When 12-year-old Jose Antonio Vargas set off from the
Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International airport bound for California, he had no
idea that two decades later he’d touch off a firestorm that stretched from TheNew
York Times
to D.C. to the border of nearly
every Southern state. That’s because earlier this year, Vargas, a Pulitzer
Prize–winning journalist, came out in the Times — not as gay (he did that when he was still in high
school) but as an undocumented immigrant.

Coming out as someone who is in the U.S. illegally, the
journalist took legal and social risks. And though the Department of Homeland
Security says illegal immigration has actually plunged two years in a row,
Vargas spoke to the hopes and dreams of about 11 million other immigrants still
hoping to find a path to U.S. citizenship.

“It’s been a very heady couple of weeks,” Vargas admits.
He’s flooded with mail from people like himself. “The most emotional I’ve
gotten ... has been reading these stories. The biggest irony here is, 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
something incredibly just tragic about it.”

The media, Vargas insists, “really has to play a big role”
in the immigration conversation. “There was a report from the Immigration
Policy Center a couple of weeks ago or so that said something along the lines
of ‘undocumented immigrants ended up paying $11.2 billion in local and
state taxes last year.’ Do you see that figure being cited anywhere? I’ve been
paying taxes since I’ve been working.”

His mother sent him to live with his grandparents, both
naturalized citizens of the U.S., to give him a better life. She told him to
tell people he was going to Disneyland if they asked, and he never saw her
again. His grandfather forged his Social Security card and Vargas — who felt he
had to work hard to earn his citizenship — began to rely on what he calls the “21st-century underground railroad.”

“I could not have made it, I could not have been able to do
what I did, if it wasn’t for my high school principal and my high school
superintendent and my choir teacher,” says Vargas of the people who kept his secret
and helped him along the way. “And the guy at The Washington Post, one of the senior managers, basically saying, ‘It
doesn’t matter that you’re undocumented — the law doesn’t make any sense. Keep
going.”

He didn’t do what his grandfather wanted, either. Vargas
said he couldn’t marry a woman to gain citizenship.

“I think coming out as gay was the truth of my life,” he
says. “I wasn’t going to live that other lie. That would have been too much for
me to handle.”

Hiding his immigration status caused Vargas no end to his
worry. After his reporting team won a Pulitzer Prize, the journalist’s
grandmother called, worried that people would now find out. Vargas ran to the
bathroom sobbing.

“This where it parallels with being in the closet about
being gay ... there are so many moments, I think, in the past few years that I’ve
had to deal with this in which I never felt quite pleasant at the moment. I
wanted so much to enjoy my moment, just winning a part of that prize was a
really big deal for me. I really couldn’t enjoy it or understand what it was
because all I was thinking was, Oh, my God, is it OK that I won this? The more
successful I got, the more afraid I got. I actually remember sitting on that
freaking toilet seat, and just thinking to myself ... Could I be the only person
who’s so afraid of their own success? Are they going to take it away?

That’s one reason Vargas came out in the end. “It’s going to
be a very tough few months. I don’t know what’s going to happen. People are
going to call me names. They’ve already started doing that. But there’s
something about living honestly. I feel a sense of relief ... a sense of
individual freedom, because of that.”

Today, the journalist is turning his attention to his new organization Define
American, which is encouraging dialogue about immigrants
and why they come to the U.S.

As police in Alabama refuse to follow the state’s new
immigration law and thousands of protesters come out as undocumented on
Georgia’s capital steps, it’s hard not to see we’re on the precipice of something
big. “The timing for us couldn’t have been more perfect, I think,” Vargas says.
When his Times essay came out, “it
actually became the most shared article on Google that week. Undocumented
immigrant,
which is not really a sexy phrase ... was trending on Twitter for the
whole day. There’s been a tipping point.”

He’s taking a cue from the gay rights movement too.

“ I actually think the immigrant rights community has a lot
to learn from the LGBT rights community,” he says. The tipping point for LGBT
rights, he says, came via technology, especially in the wake of Prop 8 losses.
“A lot of those rallies that were against that happening, happened on Facebook,
and were organized on Facebook, and organized on Twitter. Americans really
leveraging these new tools to tell a story are really going to be important for
us.”

Vargas says, “We American come out to each other all the
time. It’s just a matter of how carefully and respectfully are we really
listening and watching each other? I think that’s what’s interesting about
using coming out as like a bridge.”

Vargas surprised even some of his gay friends by coming out:
“They didn’t even know that I was undocumented. I was out to them as gay, but I
was not out to them as undocumented.” He says he’s taking a lead from James
Baldwin, a man who was black and gay before either was popular, as he focuses on
immigration issues.

“We have to figure this out. This is not black America or
white America, this is one America. 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.”

His hope is that other immigrants — gay or
straight — won’t have to face the challenges he’s had. “I hope here comes a time
when this is not going to be a barrier to success, and it’s not a barrier to
dreaming as big as you want to dream. You know, after all, this is what this country is about.”

 

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