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Jose Antonio Vargas, Documenting Himself

The reporter turned undocumented advocate talks about his new film, getting to know his mother, and the limits of immigration reform.

| Mon Jun. 24, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Vargas' mother
Vargas' mother, Emelie Salinas, at the house where Vargas grew up in the Philippines Courtesy Define American

MJ: In your Time magazine piece you discussed the questions you get—things like, "Why you haven't been deported yet?" What do those kinds of questions tell you about the debate right now?

JAV: I've done 130 events or so in 30 states in two years. And I was shocked. I knew that there was a big gap between facts and perceptions. But I didn't realize how oceanic the gap was. I thought maybe it was a river and then realized it was an actual ocean. Immigration is by far the most controversial yet least understood issue in America.

Frankly, given the way we’re talking about immigration, given the emphasis, the overemphasis on border security, I would argue that we're not on the same page when we debate this issue. We're doing far too much debating and not enough conversing. If I could, I'd go city by city, county by county, town by town, and talk to people to explain to them what this is really about—that this is not about me, this is not about us, this is not about us taking something from you. This is not about us being a threat to you. This is not about Democrat or Republican, and this is not really about border security. But in some ways our politics, and in many ways our politicians, have gotten in the way.

MJ: Sure, but then there are the realities of the immigration debate, like the border security back-and-forth and the threats of House Republicans. How do you have the kind of conversation you want to have when the political conversation is something entirely different?

"Giving people like me a green card, a passport, and a driver's license? That's not going to be the end of the immigration conversation and debate in this country."

JAV: Look, at the end of the day, am I for this immigration bill? Yes. Why? Like other undocumented people in this country, I want a green card, and I want a driver's license, and I want a passport. What, to me, is the immigration bill? It's a green card, a driver's license, and a passport. That's what it's about to me, tangibly. That I could see my mom. That I could drive. Is there anything more American than driving? That I could get a green card and be able to—right now, I'm just like freelancing and working as an independent contractor. It's hilarious. I'm unhirable. I had to create a business [laughs]—I'm not allowed to be employed, but I'm allowed to start a business. What's that about?

This immigration bill is going to pass. We're going to have a bill. It's going to get through the Senate. I think the fundamentals are there and the foundation is strong and the bill is going to happen. The House is going to be trickier, but I think it's going to happen there too. But guess what? Giving people like me a green card, a passport, and a driver's license? That's not going to be the end of the immigration conversation and debate in this country. It's like saying we elected Barack Obama president, so all of the racial problems are done. Right? I mean in some ways, the immigration conversation is just starting. Which is why when we started this campaign, we didn't call it Define Immigrant, we called it Define American. That's the question. That's what's at stake.

MJ: But people want to focus on the particulars of a potential deal, like what you think about securing the US-Mexico border.

JAV: The No. 1 question I get is, "Do you believe in an open-borders policy?" I'm like, wait a second: What does that really mean? When you say open-borders policy, do you mean that—this is like the US-Mexico border? We put up a sign that says "Keep Out," then 10 yards in we say, "Job Wanted." Is that what people mean by open borders? So that usually shuts people up. But that's the truth. We're talking about America—a country that's been built on the back of cheap labor. That's addicted to cheap labor. Talk to the Chinese and Irish who built the railroads. Talk to the black people who built the South. So what is the US-Mexico conversation really about?

I feel like people expect me to give them easy answers, but there aren't really easy answers. There are only harder questions. And unless we get to the harder questions part, about what this conversation is really about…of course I want an immigration bill to pass. I want people to have a driver's license and work permits and green cards and passports. But this conversation transcends this bill. We're not going to have a perfect bill. This is politics. I feel like my job is instead of giving people easy answers, my job is to actually to ask people to probe deeper. Why do they think what they think?

MJ: Why have you been so vocal in your support of the Drop the I-Word campaign?

JAV: For me, it's really important to focus on the language. As you can imagine, there were people who were like, "Why are you being the PC cop?" or, "This is Orwellian to tell people to stop using the word 'illegal' to refer to people." Well, I just want people to think it through. It was so important to me to go on Lou Dobbs. I wanted to go on his show, look him in the eye, and tell him, "Sir, I grew up watching you." And then he laughs. I remember that moment. "I grew up watching you, and I want you to know, for all the kids sitting in classrooms across America, when you call them illegal, what that means to him." At that point he wasn't my audience. Lou Dobbs wasn't my audience. My audience was his audience.

Something is fundamentally amiss when you refer to a person as illegal. Bottom line. That's why we so easily talk about this like we're talking about plants or crops. These illegals. My God, man, it's so tragic to me traveling around this country, this country that is getting more and more Latino, and you hear people use the words "illegal" and "Mexican" interchangeably. Interchangeably. Without blinking an eye. "These illegal Mexicans…" They're illegals! Why would you want to legalize people who are illegal. You don't! They're illegal! Period. End of the conversation. So that's why that's important.

"I'm not excusing the illegal act. I am here illegally…But I am a human being, so therefore I am not illegal."

I'm not excusing the illegal act. I am here illegally. I'm here illegally, without authorization. That's a fact. That's nothing you can call the Orwellian cops about. But I am a human being, so therefore I am not illegal. That's also a fact. That's why language is really important. To this day, I can't understand how the New York Times and Washington Post can justify it.

MJ: One of the things that stands out to me is your willingness to talk about these issues with anyone—from Dobbs to Tea Party Patriots cofounder Mark Meckler, who you're now friendly with.

JAV: There isn't anybody I won't talk to about immigration—at least once. [Laughs.] Mark is one of the most transparent and honest people. We had a conversation about the border, and I was like, "Man, why can't we go on Fox News right now and have this conversation in front of people…"

I remember we had this uncomfortable conversation that started, "Jose, if you're going to convince Republicans and tea partiers in this country that we need an immigration overhaul, then you're going to have to talk about the border. You can't just bring up all these things about colonialism and the history of who owned California and Texas. We know that stuff! We need to talk about what's happening now. And if you can't tell people that there needs to be a secure border, than we're not going to get anywhere." I looked at him and said, "You're right. We've got to talk about the border." But then, of course, I pivot and say, "Are we on the same page about the border? When you watch the way some of the commentators talk about this, it makes it seem as if people are crossing the border every second. How much money have we spent on the border? Why? And who's really exploiting whom?" And then he gets quiet. But I think just airing these out and having a face-to-face conversation about it helps both of us internalize what the conversation is really about. I don't think we have that in the public sphere.

MJ: In your Twitter tête-à-tête with Michelle Malkin, she flat out told you at one point that you should be deported and that you were lucky to have called the government on its bluff—and to have won.

"Who would've thought going on O'Reilly, going on Lou Dobbs, taking on Michelle Malkin in many ways would've been the easy part?"

JAV: [Laughs.] Again, this is a matter of perspective; it's a matter of lens. For some people, I got away with something. And you know what? That's a fair thing to say, for them. I'm not saying I agree with that, but I can see how they can say that. But it's a matter of just like…you know, I'm really fortunate. As a journalist, I don't have to agree with you to talk to you. My job is to figure out why you think the way you think. I want to get to the root of why you think the way you think. That's what I find most fascinating as a storyteller. As I've been going around the country, who would've thought going on O'Reilly, going on Lou Dobbs, taking on Michelle Malkin in many ways would've been the easy part? [Laughs.] The mother stuff? That's the one that sends you to the grocery store at 1 a.m. for a pint of Ben and Jerry's. That's the bad stuff.

This article has been revised.

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