Born in the Philippines in 1981, José Antonio Vargas has lived in the United States since age 12, when his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in California without obtaining authorization for him to stay permanently. He did not learn of his immigration status until the age of 16 when he applied for a driver’s license and discovered that his identity documents were fraudulent. He kept his immigration status secret and focused on his education and fitting in as an American.
After graduation from college, Vargas worked for the Washington Post and earned acclaim for his coverage of the AIDS epidemic in Washington DC. His work inspired the production of the documentary, The Other City, which aired on Showtime.
In 2011, Vargas wrote an essay for the New York Times revealing that he is an undocumented immigrant. He detailed how he kept this secret for 15 years during which time he worked, paid taxes and worried that his status would be revealed. His story received much acclaim and highlighted the situation that thousands of young people are dealing with today. He received the June 2011 Sidney Award for an outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism.
Also in 2011, Vargas founded Define American, a non-profit project established for the purpose of facilitating dialogue about the challenges of the undocumented and related immigration issues. His advocacy on behalf of the DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, led to his cover story in Time magazine where he described the uncertainty of his life after revealing his status. The day after the article was released, President Obama announced that his administration would halt the deportation of undocumented immigrants under age 30 who would qualify for DREAM Act relief and provide work permits for them, allowing them to remain in the U.S. legally. Because Vargas was 31 at the time, he did not qualify.
He influenced major media outlets to use the term “undocumented” as opposed to “illegal immigrant” determining it is less dehumanizing. In 2013, the Associated Press and the New York Times announced that they will no longer use “illegal immigrant.” Vargas wrote, directed and produced the autobiographical film Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American released in 2013 and presented by CNN in 2014. In February 2013 Vargas testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee on Immigration and argued, “No human being is illegal.”
Vargas came out as gay in high school in 1999 and described it as “less daunting than coming out about my legal status.” He spoke out against the Defense of Marriage Act, calling it an immigration issue that disadvantages people like him “from marrying my way into citizenship like straight people can.”