Journalist discusses his life as undocumented immigrant in America

José Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the Philippines and has written for publications including the Washington Post, Huffington Post and The New York Times Magazine. Vargas won a Pulitzer Prize, along with a team of reporters at the Washington Post, for breaking news on the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Vargas also revealed in an essay that ran in June 2011 in the New York Times Magazine that he has never been registered as an official United States citizen.

Vargas has been undocumented for almost 20 years and uses his story to spread awareness and advocate for others in his situation.

Vargas will speak at Lincoln Hall on Thursday night about his life as an undocumented immigrant. He will also discuss Define American, a program he founded to help others like him.

He will give another presentation at the University YMCA at noon Friday as part of the Friday Forum series. He will talk about the role of immigration policies in the current election.

The Daily Illini: What do you hope to accomplish during your visit in Champaign?

José Antonio Vargas: Illinois has one of the most active ... undocumented youth communities out of all the states. ... Really, my goal is to just go there, meet people and also try to figure out how we can build alliances, how we can make sure that we’re bringing in as many different people from as many different groups as possible to advocate for immigrant rights. Because immigrant rights is not just about Latinos and Asian people, it’s about also white people, black people  — all Americans should have a say in this.

DI: Why did you decide to reintroduce yourself to America as an undocumented immigrant?

JV: To be an undocumented person in this country is to not have the legal documents to be here, but we are, after all, talking about pieces of paper. You know, I don’t, of course, undermine rights and legal nature of the law and all. I respect the law; that’s precisely why I came out and decided that I’m done lying. ... And I love and respect America ... I introduced myself as an undocumented American because that’s what I am. I’m a person in this country that doesn’t have the right papers ... to be here.

DI: What thoughts were running through your mind when your essay was published in The New York Times Magazine?

JV: I was afraid. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I think once I decided that it was time to do this, you make a decision, and you just stick with it. It’s been hard — it’s been very hard — but I’m proud. I’m proud, and I am glad, and I am proud of the decision I made.

DI: As a journalist, you’re continuously reporting on one of the biggest issues that shapes this country. Do you see an end to this story anywhere in the near future?

JV: I am working on the biggest issue that faces our country, and I am also telling a story that is mine, it’s personal. ... We’re talking about the very nature of citizenship in this country. ... I am an American. If you cut my heart open, that’s what you would see. I don’t have the right papers to show you that, but that’s who I am. That’s how I look at the world. That’s what forms the way I think about world, the way I think about myself. I’m a human being.

DI: If you had revealed yourself as an undocumented immigrant 10 years ago, how do you think your life would be different?

JV: I don’t think I would’ve been ready 10 years ago. I was too scared ... I was too scared. I was too paralyzed by fear.

Jacqueline can be reached at

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