Jose Antonio Vargas: Who belongs in America? An undocumented journalist's story At 16, Jose Antonio Vargas learned he was living in the U.S. illegally. As an adult, Vargas came out as undocumented and dedicated his career to broadening the idea of who belongs in America.

Who belongs in America? An undocumented journalist tells his story

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. We start today on Broadway, where I recently went with an old friend to see a musical called "Here Lies Love."

It already feels like a party just in the lobby. Would you agree?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, absolutely - 100%.

ZOMORODI: The show tells the story of the rise and fall of Ferdinand Marcos, the corrupt dictator who was married to a former beauty queen, Imelda Marcos, who later became famous for her extensive designer shoe collection.

Do you think that we're going to watch a show about the demise of democracy? 'Cause that's what it is.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Is that what we're going to see? I had no idea.

ZOMORODI: Marcos was democratically elected, but over the course of 20 years, he had thousands killed to maintain his grip on power.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T YOU AGREE? PRETTY FACE")

MARIA-CHRISTINA OLIVERAS: (As Maria Luisa, singing) Sometimes, we need a strong man.

ZOMORODI: Weirdly, the story is told through disco, written by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. And much of the audience don't have seats. So we were on the dance floor, boogying away with the dictators.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Here we go. Come on.

ZOMORODI: Which felt really fun but at times also very wrong.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: It is uncomfortable.

ZOMORODI: This is producer Jose Antonio Vargas. He says Ferdinand and Imelda's ability to seduce theatergoers night after night - that's the point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING TOGETHER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Dancing.

VARGAS: The music is so good, right? And it's a metaphor. You know, we all get lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING TOGETHER")

RUTHIE ANN MILES: (As Imelda, singing) Oh, so beautifully.

VARGAS: They're like, OK, there's Imelda. You know, she's charming. But then they can't help it, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING TOGETHER")

RUTHIE ANN MILES AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Dancing.

ZOMORODI: The Marcoses were eventually ousted in 1986 by massive, peaceful protests called the People Power Revolution. It's Jose's favorite act of the show.

VARGAS: And all you hear is the human voice and the guitar. And he says...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD DRAWS STRAIGHT")

KELVIN MOON LOH: (As DJ, singing) And there's so many people.

VARGAS: ...That democracy belongs to the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD DRAWS STRAIGHT")

LOH: (As DJ, singing) Everybody is here.

VARGAS: And that's the moment when I'm like, OK. The People Power Revolution of the Philippines in the mid-'80s I was there. My Auntie Ida brought me. I was 5. That was a peaceful four-day revolution. And given everything that's happening right now in the world and in our own country, I think that concept of democracy belonging to the people, and what are we going to do with it? Our democracy will only stay alive if we actually fight for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: The history of the Philippines, a democracy sliding into a dictatorship, and the country's struggle to wrestle it back - it echoes what's happening in many countries, from Poland to Turkey, and now maybe even in the U.S., as our multicultural democracy is tested. So before the curtains rise on a big election year, today on the show, what topples democracies? Ideas and stories about what keeps people united and what drives them apart - which brings us back to Jose Antonio Vargas. A recent text from a friend reminded him of the personal significance of putting "Here Lies Love" on Broadway.

VARGAS: And she texted me, and she said, Jose, you can't go to the Philippines. So now you help bring the Philippines here. And I remember I looked at the texts, and I actually - I have to tell you, I was in the subway - I actually, like, started just tearing up because she's right. I didn't think of it that way - that's what I was trying to do, helping to do. You know, I haven't been able to go back home for 30 years - 31 years next summer.

ZOMORODI: Before telling the saga of the Marcoses, Jose experienced his own saga growing up. When he was 12 years old, he was living with his mother in the Philippines and then left to join his grandparents in California.

VARGAS: There was just always this expectation that America was inevitable. And so growing up, I knew that my grandparents were here, and it was only a matter of time that I was going to come.

ZOMORODI: They hoped, as most immigrants do, that he would get a better education, a better life. And Jose did, until age 16, when, like many American teens, he went to get his driver's permit and got a shock instead.

VARGAS: Yeah. And then I went to the booth. And this woman with curly hair, glasses - I said I was here for the permit. I gave her my green card. I gave her my Mountain View High School ID, and she flipped my green card around twice. And she told me that it was fake. And then she said, don't come back here again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: What went through your mind?

VARGAS: Well, the first thing was, she's lying. I was thinking to myself, she's just confused, you know? Like, I didn't believe her. And my grandfather was a security guard, so he worked the graveyard shift. So he was always home during the day. So I biked home, and I got to the house, and I told her what the woman had said. And I assume my grandfather was going to say, oh, she's lying; that's not right. But then my grandfather says, what are you doing showing that - the green card - to people? You're not supposed to be here.

ZOMORODI: Jose's grandparents were naturalized citizens, but Jose didn't know that he was undocumented - in the U.S. illegally.

VARGAS: And then I think that's when my journalism career started, you know, because I was like, wait, what?

ZOMORODI: Yeah, 'cause you must have had a lot of questions.

VARGAS: If that's fake, then what else is fake? I mean, that's why I never thought about me not being here in any other way than legal because my grandparents - they were both here with papers. So if they had papers, why didn't I?

ZOMORODI: And what did they tell you?

VARGAS: You know, that's when kind of the unraveling started. So then I - from the way my grandfather explained it, they couldn't petition me here because grandparents can't petition grandkids. And then that's when - I remembered when I left the Philippines, I was introduced to this guy that was my uncle, and that was the first time I had met him. And - but, again, I'm Filipino. Everybody's an uncle. So I just assumed that he was really my uncle, right? And then that's how I found out he was the smuggler that was paid money to smuggle me here. And then the plan was I was supposed to go through high school at least. And then after high school, I would work under the table, which is what a lot of undocumented people do, at the flea market, where my grandfather's brother was a janitor.

So that was, again, his plan. Right? And then this idea of, like, you know, marry a woman who a U.S. citizen - and then that's when I was like, but I'm not attracted to women. Like, I'm gay, you know, which is not the kind of thing that you want to tell your grandfather, who's, you know, very much a Catholic. So in many ways, coming out as gay when I was finding out that I was undocumented was my way of claiming, I'm not going to surrender to your narrative, to what you want me to do.

ZOMORODI: So at 16, Jose decides to find ways to fit in so no one will ever doubt his nationality again.

VARGAS: The first thing was, like, I can't - I have to make sure that people know that I'm supposed to be here. The first thing was the way I spoke. And thank God for PBS and, like, hip-hop and R&B. Like, that's how I learned it, right? I figured if I can sound like Charlie Rose and Dr. Dre, I'll be OK. So that was the first thing. And then the second thing was really kind of getting lost in America, you know? And I was really lucky that I was in high school when the New York Times website went online for free. And thank God I could read all these articles. And mind you, I wasn't, like, a straight-A student. I think I was, like, barely a 3.0 student. But I did everything. I edited the school paper. I was in the speech and debate club. I was in theater. I was in choir. I did everything.

ZOMORODI: A couple teachers noticed Jose's enthusiasm, and they wanted to make sure that he got a chance to go to college.

VARGAS: All I could tell them was that I don't - you know, clearly I can't apply for financial aid, and I can't afford college. So how am I going to get to college? And it just so happened that there was a venture capitalist whose kids attended the school district, and he wanted to start a scholarship fund. And Rich Fischer, the superintendent, convinced him, yeah, if you're going to start this, like, can we just make sure that it doesn't have immigration status as a requirement?

ZOMORODI: So you were lucky you had adults who didn't give a crap about what your status was.

VARGAS: No 'cause I did. It was always foremost in my mind, but they didn't.

ZOMORODI: Jose went to college. He became a journalist. He got a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, then the Washington Post, where he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. He paid taxes using a doctored Social Security card, all the while fearful that someone would find out his secret.

VARGAS: I lied on an employment form saying that I'm a U.S. citizen. To get those jobs, to get to the San Francisco Chronicle, to get to the Washington Post, I lied. I checked the box. I checked U.S. citizen.

ZOMORODI: Keeping up the charade was exhausting. Finally, at the age of 30, it became too much.

VARGAS: You know, like, the lying is - I'm done lying. Like, I'm here.

ZOMORODI: In 2011, Jose decided to write an article that he thought might be his last. The first-person story appeared in the New York Times Magazine with the headline "My Life As An Undocumented Immigrant." His face in black and white filled the cover.

VARGAS: I knew that making myself the story was a big choice. There was no coming back from that, right? And then the thing that I had to really grapple with was understanding the legal ramifications of putting in paper, in black ink in The New York Times that I had broken the immigration law and that I claimed U.S. citizenship that I didn't have. And I didn't know until I spoke to a bunch of immigration lawyers that actually claiming false citizenship, claiming that you're an American citizen if you're not is the highest offence you could make. Right? And the moment you do that, you can't apply for an EB, Extraordinary Ability visa, right?

ZOMORODI: Oh, the EB visa is for people who can show that they can contribute special things to the United States so that they can get citizenship. But you had committed a crime, which meant you couldn't even try to get the one kind of visa that you probably would have qualified for.

VARGAS: Most things you actually put off the table, right? So I had to understand that. And to be honest, 12 years into this work now, someone is going to ask me, hey; why can't you just go fix this thing? Can't you just ask President Biden for a pardon? Somebody actually asked me that. You know, like, you're producing a Broadway show. Like, you know, you're doing all of these things. Like, can't they just make an exception? No. That's not the point here. The point is to say there are 11 million of us. And mind you, I think there's more than 11 million. And we are in legal immigration purgatory.

ZOMORODI: In a minute, more from Jose Antonio Vargas and his hopes for other undocumented immigrants. On the show today, What Topples Democracies. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and we were just talking to journalist and Broadway producer Jose Antonio Vargas about his 2011 public announcement that he was living in the U.S. illegally, that he was undocumented.

VARGAS: You lie, you pass, you hide.

ZOMORODI: So that he could draw more attention to the legal immigration purgatory that many undocumented people here in the U.S. are in, Jose made a documentary about his experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCUMENTED")

VARGAS: So I'm launching a whole campaign about what it means to be an American and the fact that I am an American.

ZOMORODI: He started a media company called Define American, gave his first TED Talk and wrote a book called "Dear America."

VARGAS: There are tens of thousands of students across America who are here without papers, and I would hate to think that they're sitting in their classrooms listening to us talk about them and internalizing the word illegal.

ZOMORODI: He changed his entire focus from reporting on Americans to reporting on people who consider themselves American - they pay taxes, contribute to society, but are told that they need to leave or hide.

VARGAS: Actions are illegal, never people.

ZOMORODI: But when Donald Trump was elected in 2016 and anti-immigration sentiment was on the rise, Jose started questioning his decision to stay in a country with laws that essentially told him he didn't belong.

VARGAS: I started getting messages from all the undocumented people - right? - like, who have decided to leave, actually. So I was thinking, go back to the Philippines where I have to go back to because that's what I'm a citizen of. And then I was thinking, either, you know, the U.K. or Canada, if they'd have me, and then the whole world would be available - right? - just not America. So that was my plan.

ZOMORODI: Then something delightful happened that made him feel wanted here in a way he never expected.

VARGAS: Yeah. So the school district that I attended as a sixth-grader decided to rename an elementary school. And then, to my surprise, the trustees voted, and it's Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

VARGAS: My first question was, wait a second, can they legally do that? Can you legally name a school after someone who was here illegally? Like, is that allowed?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

VARGAS: And so then I was thinking to myself, what do I say to these kids when they ask their parents, who is this guy? Oh, he left? It got too hard? I know that sounds crazy, but school, for me, like, I don't know where I'd be if I wasn't a graduate of Crittenden Middle School, Mountain View High School and San Francisco State University, all public schools. I don't know where I would be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So explain the significance of that, because on the one hand, just as you're feeling like you're unwanted in the U.S., you find out that you are recognized and had a big influence on the place where you grew up in California. So how has your thinking evolved, and how have you seen the country's attitudes towards immigrants evolve?

VARGAS: Yeah. There was a moment, actually, when I came out as undocumented 12 years ago, that there was a whole movement called, you know, Undocumented, Unafraid And Unapologetic. Young people coming out as undocumented. Now because of how anti-immigrant the rhetoric, especially during the Trump era, a lot of young people are going back to the closet about this. And a young woman reached out to me recently, and she was asking me why keep going? And the thing that I had to tell her to think about is, look, if freedom can't come from the government, then freedom has to come from people that actually are going to make you feel free. They may be teachers, they may be co-workers, they may be whatever who are the ones saying, you know what? You belong here. Go find those people.

You know, mind you, when my principal and my superintendent, my mentor, my journalism mentor, I don't think they ever used the word allies, but that's what they were, right? I would argue that they were practicing citizenship. In many ways, they defined American and didn't see any reason why I wasn't one. 'Cause whether or not America considers me an American, like, this is my country, and I have to be a part of it, and I am a part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's Jose Antonio Vargas. He's a journalist and Broadway producer. You can see both of his TED Talks at ted.com.

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