A Coming out Party for Jose Antonio Vargas

June 23, 2011

Jose Antonio Vargas' announcement of his undocumented
immigration status shines light on his entrapment within the system.

Today the journalism world is shocked by the announcement that Jose
Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning writer who has worked for The Washington
Post andHuffington 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.

Matias Ramos is the 2011 Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman
Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He works in the Institute's
communications department, identifying and maximizing opportunities to build
online audiences.  In addition, he is a co-founder of United We Dream, a national immigrant
youth advocacy network.


This article was originally printed by the Institute for Policy Studies.  It is
reprinted here with permission.

Matias Ramos