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.