Pulitzer Prize winner speaks out about immigration

Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas revealed last year that he is an undocumented immigrant.


Jose Antonio Vargas, an award-winning multimedia journalist and founder of Define American, speaks to students at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida on Monday.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 30, 2012 at 9:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 30, 2012 at 9:28 p.m.

Jose Antonio Vargas revealed himself to be an undocumented immigrant last year in a story that he wrote for The New York Times Magazine.

He said Monday at the University of Florida that a number of immigration lawyers advised him against writing the piece, but he felt he needed to speak out.

“I don't know if we can really afford to be silent anymore about this issue,” he said.

Vargas spoke to a crowd of more than 120 at UF's Bob Graham Center for Public Service. He was a reporter for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and other news outlets before founding Define American, a campaign that seeks to elevate the conversation around immigration.

He criticized the language used in the immigration debate, with people who used to be called “first-generation Americans” now being called “anchor babies.”

“Before we can even talk about any piece of legislation, I think we all have to acknowledge that the way we talk about this issue is so fundamentally broken,” he said.

Born in the Philippines, Vargas' mother sent him to the U.S. at age 12 for a better life. He wasn't aware that he was living in the country illegally until he was 16, when he was turned away from getting a driver's license because of a fake green card.

He went on to work on the Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. He recalled the steps he took to keep his immigration status a secret, including giving false information to cover a White House dinner for the paper.

“I was giving this fraudulent Social Security number to the Secret Service to get into the White House,” he said. “That's how bad it got.”

He said that journalists sometimes hide behind objectivity, so he wanted to share his story to give people an idea of what undocumented immigrants experience.

“I'm merely advocating for my life,” he said. “That's all I'm doing.”

He said he doesn't blame the states for enacting anti-immigrant laws because the federal government has failed them on the issue. He said that President Barack Obama has deported more people in three years than George W. Bush did during his entire presidency.

But he took particular issue with the Republican presidential candidates and their approach to immigration, including Mitt Romney's debate statement that immigrants under his plan would be responsible for deporting themselves.

“I am not self-deporting myself,” he said. “Mitt Romney would have to deport me himself if he wanted to.”

He said that he has lawyers working on his immigration status but many options were closed to him when he turned 16. The campaign is a way to have an impact on the issue of immigration in whatever time he has left in the U.S., he said.

“America to me was something I had to always earn,” he said. “It wasn't just something that was given to me. And I'm going to go try to earn it as much as I can.”

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top