Journalist, activist and Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas spoke to his “double coming out” as part of a lecture series in commemoration to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month.
Vargas, an openly gay man and undocumented immigrant, shared his own story of self-acceptance to a crowd at the Pyle Center Tuesday in an effort to show the parallels between the two identity questions.
According to Gabriel Javier, assistant dean of students and director of the LGBT Campus Center, the complexity of stories like Vargas’ shows the spectrum of identity questions and ultimately strengthen the LGBT community.
Vargas, who said he was very drawn to the idea of the “American identity,” moved from the Philippines to California in 1993 and did not know of his “undocumented” status until 1997, when he was 16.
According to Vargas, reconciling this “identity intersection” of being both gay and undocumented proved to be difficult. He added the Defense of Marriage Act, a Clinton-era law that the government no longer enforces, made being undocumented more burdensome.
“My whole life I have looked, felt and internalized being an outsider,” Vargas said. “Because of all of this baggage, feeling [of] sense of pride and owning who I am and everything I am has always been a challenge.”
Today, Vargas, as an openly undocumented immigrant and acclaimed journalist who has worked for such publications as the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine, said he has decided to use his network to raise awareness and educate the nation about immigration.
According to Vargas, the discussion on immigration and race has barely started in the U.S. and is one with questions rooted deeply in the nation history.
Vargas said the topic goes back to the basic terminology of “undocumented immigrant” versus “illegal alien.”
“It is a pejorative and dehumanizing term,” Vargas said in regard to the word “illegal.” “It has become a euphemism; it has become politicized.”
Vargas said the difference in terminology is an important one for him, as he is “somebody who cares about words, and has made a career about it,” adding the politicization of the topic is superficial and based on ignorance.
Education on concepts like these makes an impact on the entire immigration debate, Vargas said, adding he was once a “victim of his own ignorance” in associating the term “illegal alien” with people of Mexican heritage.
Vargas emphasized the large misconceptions about the undocumented in this country, highlighting the large ethnic diversity of undocumented individuals.
According to Vargas, one million out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are Asian, a statistic Vargas said he believes a majority of Americans are unaware of.
Vargas also highlighted the fact the majority of undocumented immigrants, including himself, pay a significant amount of taxes.
As an openly undocumented individual, Vargas, who himself has called the federal immigration office, said the Internal Revenue Service does not care if someone is undocumented and is instead concerned with whether one pays taxes.
Currently, Vargas is the founder of Define American, a campaign meant to bring new voices to the immigration debate. Vargas said he hopes to continue this battle for immigration reform and called on communities like the LGBT community to help in spreading the word.
He connected the identity questions of the LGBT community and the undocumented community with the same terminology of “coming out,” adding people can take the concept of having a gay best friend, neighbor and family member in terms of undocumented immigrants.
Without the privilege to vote, Vargas said he hopes to spread the word with his organization.
“All I can do and all I can say is that I want to create a space where these stories can exist,” Vargas said. “America is a fight; it is something you earn, not something you are given.”