Five years ago, Jose Antonio Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant in one of the most public ways imaginable: via a lengthy, first-person cover story in The New York Times Magazine. Vargas, a journalist who shared a Pulitzer Prize for reporting at the Washington Post, related his memories of boarding a plane in the Philippines with a coyote posing as his uncle when he just 12, of realizing he wasn’t in the country legally four years later when he went to apply for driver’s license at the DMV, and of the countless times he feared his immigration status would be exposed over the following 14 years.
Today, Vargas, who still has not been able to become a legal citizen, travels the country advocating for immigrants’ rights. His story was included in an amicus brief filed on behalf of the government in United States v. Texas, which has been called one of the most important immigration cases to come before the Supreme Court in a century; arguments started Monday. Texas is one of 26 states challenging executive orders that would give undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and undocumented parents of U.S.-born citizens the chance to apply for work permits and temporarily protection from deportation. The states argue that the orders, known as DACA and DAPA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), put too large a financial burden on them by requiring them to pay for processing of driver’s license applications for those who qualify.
Vargas spoke to Rolling Stone about the case, his own experiences as an undocumented immigrant, and about EmergingUS, a news outlet he launched recently to help tell more stories like his.
What’s at stake in United States v. Texas?
President Obama issued this executive order almost two years ago in November and it’s been stuck in the courts. These executive orders, they give work permits and defer deportation for five million people. I am one of the five million people. The first time the president issued an executive order I did not qualify for it — I was four months older than the age cut-off. The first executive order, it was for kids who were brought here illegally when they were children, but the age cutoff was 30. So I was excluded from that; there were millions of us who were excluded from that. DACA+ [which was created later] doesn’t have that age limit. And then DAPA is if you’re here as a parent who has U.S.-citizen children. What are you going to do with all of these parents whose kids are here as U.S.-born American citizen?
So, for the average person, what’s at stake is: What are you going to do with all of these millions of undocumented people? It’s been perpetual limbo for them. Nothing is getting done. Congress is saying the president is overreaching, but I would argue that Congress has been irresponsible in not doing anything.
How did you get involved in the case? Did the government approach you?
No, not the government per se. I’ve been doing this [immigration reform advocacy] now for almost five years, and the National Immigration Law Center, one of the leading immigrants’ rights groups in the country, they came to me and said they wanted to include me in an amicus brief. So of course I said yes, because I am directly impacted by this.
What is the status right now for people like you who would be impacted by this program? Are DACA and DAPA applications frozen?
We can’t even apply! We haven’t applied because it hasn’t been enacted. When people say “unfreeze DACA or DAPA,” what they are saying is: Let it go forward. Let it go through so people can start applying. Seven hundred thousand undocumented people are eligible for the first DACA. But, again, to the average person who doesn’t follow this stuff, all it means is that there would be some sort of relief for undocumented people. I would be eligible for a work permit so I could work here legally. I can start a business like EmergingUS; I could legally hire people, but I can’t be legally hired. Doesn’t that, in some way, expose how broken the whole system is?
For me, the more important thing is I would be able to apply for [advanced] parole to actually leave the country for a very short period of time to see my mother in the Philippines, and my sister and my brother — and be allowed to come back. Because right now if I left the country there is no guarantee that I would be allowed to come back.
When I came out as undocumented immigrant in 2011, I basically said, “OK, I’m here. What do you want to do with me?” That was my testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I have been very transparent, which is why when I travel around the country, which I’ve been doing nonstop now for the last five years, people are like, “Why don’t you just make yourself legal?” People actually ask me that question.
How do you feel when people ask you that, and what do you say to them?
Look, immigration is a very difficult issue to understand. What I feel is frustration. As much as the media talks about this issue, it’s astounding how little the public understands about the issue. It’s astounding, it’s frustrating, it’s disappointing. It kind of tells you, in a way, the lack of understanding by the public about this issue is largely the fault of the news media, because whenever they talk about immigration it’s mostly from the perspective of politicians, right? It’s not about explaining, this is how people stay here.
Here’s the other thing: The general public doesn’t even know that most undocumented people in this country can’t even drive here. There’s only 12 states that allow us to drive. But when I talk to people, they think we can drive — people actually think there is some sort of amnesty.
Is that what motivated you to launch the news outlet EmergingUS?
I traveled the country talking to people about immigration. I would show up, I would give a lecture, I would do a panel, I would facilitate a conversation, and once I tell them what’s happening most people are totally shocked, like, What do you mean you haven’t seen your mom for 22 years? You should fix that! And I’m like, “Uh, yeah!” What I realized is that I can’t talk to them about these issues because they’re dealing with all these other issues that are more relevant to their lives. So I have to be able to connect to them and whatever they are dealing with. So EmergingUS, to me — it’s called EmergingUS because it’s about the emerging American identity — our core journalistic question is who are we and who are we becoming? And of course immigration is a big issue for EmergingUS, because I for one am directly impacted.
I would say that the biggest struggle in this country right now is, how do we wake up the moral consciousness of the American public? How do we do that? Because most of the American public are not going to know the difference between DACA, DACA+, DAPA, temporary relief. How do we raise the moral consciousness on this issue and isn’t that one of the responsibilities of the media? At EmergingUS, that’s one of our goals.
Even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Obama administration, this is only temporary, right? A President Trump or Cruz could undo it as soon as he assumes office, right?
That’s a really important point to make. This is only temporary. All of this is temporary because Congress, and the government in general, doesn’t know what to do with us. They haven’t passed a significant bill. It’s only temporary.
The bigger fight is obviously for comprehensive reform. Who do you think is the best candidate to get this done?
The Democratic Party, of course, is much better. Both Clinton and Sanders. Especially if you compare them to what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are saying. But with the Democrats, it’s a turnout issue: Of course they want to support DACA and DAPA because it galvanizes voters and it galvanizes Latino voters and Asian voters.
Do you think either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders are talking enough about comprehensive immigration reform?
Comprehensive reform is not even on the table. Hillary Clinton has said she would form an immigration office. Sanders has said that he would make this a priority within the first 100 days. That’s what President Obama said when he got elected: This would be a priority. So they’ve talked about it, but not enough. I was so aghast that CNN could have a debate in New York — New York being home to, what, four million undocumented immigrants? — and immigration did not come up once in the debate.
Obama promised to enact reform, but since he’s been in office, he’s been severely criticized for his record on the issue. How important is this case to Obama’s legacy on immigration?
In some ways, President Obama’s legacy on immigration is hinging on this Supreme Court decision. Is he going to be remembered as the deporter-in-chief, or is he going to be remembered as someone who provided at least temporary relief to undocumented people and their families? Is he going to be remembered as someone who tried to do something — something — on this issue? That will be decided by this case. And we’re not going to know until late June [when the Supreme Court decision is expected to come down].