University News

Undocumented immigrant journalist calls for reform

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jose Antonio Vargas, an award-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant, spoke at Brown Monday. Above, with Zachary Hammer ’16.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who had been working in the U.S. for more than 10 years when he published an essay in the New York Times Magazine revealing his status as an undocumented immigrant, spoke to a full crowd in Metcalf Auditorium Monday night. Vargas discussed the oversimplification of the dialogue surrounding the immigration debate, expressing his confusion at how “one human being (can) call another human being illegal.”

“Actions are illegal, but people are never illegal,” Vargas said, noting that being undocumented is a civil offense not a criminal one.

Vargas’ essay, entitled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” was published in 2011, launching him squarely into the spotlight as a immigration rights activist.

Vargas moved to California from the Philipines in 1993, when he was 12. When he tried to get his driver’s license four years later, he discovered his green card was fake, he said.

Vargas also spoke to the audience about coming out as gay and his grandfather consequently kicking him out of the house. “I came out of one closet because I couldn’t handle being in two at once,” he said. But this meant his best shot at citizenship – marrying a U.S. citizen – was crushed.

“My whole life I have felt and internalized being an outsider,” Vargas said.

During his formative teenage years, a teacher encouraged Vargas to pursue journalism, he told the audience, and in many ways he used the legitimacy of seeing his name in bylines to document his undocumented existence, he said.

Throughout his early career, Vargas depended on a license he got from Washington, where undocumented citizens can legally apply for licenses. “That driver’s license was my life for eight years,” he said. “It was the only proof of my identity I had.”

Vargas emphasized that support from those who know undocumented immigrants is an important part of elevating discussion about immigration in the United States. Contradictory knowledge or lack of knowledge plagues the debate over immigration, he noted. For example, most people do not realize that undocumented workers paid $28 million in Rhode Island state taxes in 2010, he said.

Ceasing to frame the debate in simplistic us-versus-them language like “illegal immigrants” will move the debate toward solutions, he added, noting that mixed-status families and millions of undocumented students complicate the debate.

“They can’t all just babysit your kids and mow your lawns and serve you drinks,” Vargas said.

He applauded Rhode Island for being one of the few states to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students.

Rooted in the global economy and foreign policy, immigration will be a defining topic of the 21st century. But discussions of these underlying issues will not happen until we reframe the debate in less “pejorative and dehumanizing” terms, Vargas said.

Vargas showed the audience a clip of civil rights movement leader James Baldwin, who he said made him realize that despite the differences in separate rights movements, “we’re all in this together.”

When pressed by audience members about border control and national security, Vargas said he is concerned that the U.S. government has a limited understanding of the scope of illegal immigration. “All we have is political football, political theater,” he said.

Undocumented workers are stereotyped as only coming from Mexico, and little structure exists to deal with the large diversity in the undocumented population, he added.

Vargas said “citizenship is something that has to be earned” and promotes increasing access to English-learning programs for immigrants.

“I’ve paid so much in taxes, I should be a Republican,” said Vargas, who frequently speaks to conservative groups. He believes that the immigration debate needs to address the “white working class anxiety” that fuels anti-immigrant feelings.

Vargas visited Brown three days before he is set to appear in court after being arrested for driving without a valid license in Minnesota, according to the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

His arrest falls under “Secure Communities,” a Bush-era program that, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website, encourages local law enforcement to report arrests of undocumented immigrants who have broken criminal laws to the ICE.

Legislation like “Secure Communities” results from the overly simplistic terms of the discussion on immigration, Vargas told The Herald after the lecture.

“Life has not been secure and safe in immigrant communities under (the legislation),” he added. The Obama administration, which has continued the program, needs to reconsider it, he said.

Vargas said he could not comment on his current court case, but added that he is grateful he was released.

Vargas’ interest in speaking at Ivy League schools stems from student activism such as the Ivy League Immigrants’ Rights Coalition Summit, he said, adding, “College campuses and among young people are where we actually can have an honest discussion.”


  1. “Actions are illegal, but people are never illegal,” Vargas said, noting that being undocumented is a civil offense not a criminal one.”

    He is just splitting hairs. Only some “immigration violations” are civil offenses. Failure to carry proof of legal status is a federal crime. It would appear that Mr. Vargas needs to do more reading and less writing and talking.

    Any so called solution that leaves citizens and legal immigrants unemployed and the criminal immigrants employed will never be acceptable.

    Webster says crime is “an act committed in violation of a law prohibiting it, or omitted in violation of a law ordering it; specif., any felony or misdemeanor except a petty violation of a local ordinance.” Webster also says alien means “belonging to another country or people, foreign.”

    Logically, people who did not immigrate legally are CRIMINALLY ALIEN people.

  2. Aztlan Buster says:

    This parasitic poofter Vargas should have been deported a long time ago, but instead the corrupt and despicable ObaMao regime is turning a blind eye and this pendejo Jose is being treated like some sort of celebrity instead of the criminal he is. The rule of law means nothing in this nation anymore under the current regime.

    Vargas needs to check this out:

    Under Title 8 Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, “Improper Entry by Alien,” any citizen of any country other than the United States who:

    Enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers; or

    Eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers; or

    Attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact;

    has committed a federal crime.

    Violations are punishable by criminal fines and imprisonment for up to six months. Repeat offenses can bring up to two years in prison. Additional civil fines may be imposed at the discretion of immigration judges, but civil fines do not negate the criminal sanctions or nature of the offense.

  3. Political football my ass. What we have is 30 million illiterate peons sucking our coffers. When we’re bankrupt, these poor working scofflaws will move on leaving America as the same kind of crap hole they left behind in Mexico. And the libs, aka democrat party? When it’s over, they’ll be the only ones with wealth and power. The GOP will have kissed their collective butt and become no more.

  4. Vargas showed the audience a clip of civil rights movement leader James Baldwin, who he said made him realize that despite the differences in separate rights movements, “we’re all in this together.”
    —————–Civil rights, by definition, belong to CITIZENS of a country. Illegal aliens are NOT even legal residents of this country and as such have no “civil rights”. Mr. Vargas himself admits to committing multiple felonies, from using a doctored social security card to illegally work to lying on his I-9 for employment to claiming to be a US citizen to get work. He has also fraudulently obtained driver’s licenses in Oregon and, most recently, Washington State.

  5. Anonymous, if you read the article, you would see that you are incorrect at least on the point that his Washington driver’s license was invalid: they allowed undocumented citizens to procure licenses.

  6. “Undocumented immigrant journalist” What leftwing nutcase thought this headline up ? He is an illegal alien.
    He even admitted to having “documents”, but said that they were all fake or forged !

  7. Given the topic of immigrants in upcoming elections, a wonderful new book that helps explain the role, struggles, and contributions of immigrants is “What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to understand crazy American culture, people, government, business, language and more.” It paints a revealing picture of America for those foreigners who will benefit from a better understanding. Endorsed by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it also informs Americans who want to learn more about the U.S. and how we compare to other countries around the world on many issues. As the book points out, immigrants are a major force in America. Immigrants and the children they bear account for 60 percent of our nation’s population growth. Legal immigrants number 850,000 each year; undocumented (illegal) immigrants are estimated to be half that number. They come to improve their lives and create a foundation of success for their children to build upon. Many bring their skills and a willingness to work hard to make their dreams a reality, something our founders did four hundred years ago. However, many struggle in their efforts.

  8. Jim Gilchrist says:


    Dear Fellow Americans,

    I am speaking to you today to tell you that the United States is no longer a nation of laws insofar as immigration laws are concerned.

    However, as your president, I do expect each and every one of you to obey all other laws and not arbitrarily decide which laws you will obey and which laws you will violate…except for those who wish to break our immigration laws.

    We are a nation of immigrants, Americans. In keeping with that heralded stature we must continue to warmly invite all seven and one-half billion persons from throughout to come here at their whim and share in the bottomless cornucopia of welfare benefit programs and entitlements originally earmarked for U.S. citizens.

    To all of you who support me in my endeavor I say: “You are great Americans!”

    To those of you who disagree with me, then I say to you: “You have no heart!”

    Sincerely, President Barack H. Obama

    Submitted by: Jim Gilchrist, Founder and President,The Minuteman Project

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