Jose Antonio Vargas On How America Talks About Immigration

Jose Antonio Vargas wears many hats. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for new organizations such as The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. He’s an Angeleno, Filipino, and gay. He’s also undocumented.

Vargas found out he wasn’t an American citizen at the DMV counter when he was 16, and for a large part of his adult life, kept this fact hidden. Then, in 2011, he came out about his legal status in very powerful personal essay for The New York Times Magazine. In it, Vargas recounted the burden of keeping such a massive secret, and concluded:

Since that piece, Vargas has transformed into an activist. He’s traveled to cities and towns across the U.S. to talk about the very issue he had to be silent about for most of his life. He’s been on the cover of TIME magazine and deemed “the symbol of the immigration debate” by CNN. He’s also started a non-profit called Define American to make immigrant issues more visible.

In 2016, Vargas still feels that the quality of the political debates on immigration lacks humanity, especially on the Republican side. In response he’s launched #EmergingUS, a crowd-funded multimedia platform through which he hopes to promote better dialogue on race, immigration, and American Identity—issues that are central to this presidential election and that will continue to be important in future ones.

CityLab spoke with Vargas over the phone to learn his views on how America is talking about immigration. Here are highlights from that interview, condensed and edited for clarity.

How have immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, contributed to U.S. cities and the economy?

Could you imagine New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco—every major city in America—without not only immigrant labor, but undocumented immigrant labor? Could you imagine?

By TANVI MISRA for CityLab
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