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Jose Antonio Vargas

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Jose Antonio Vargas
Jose Antonio Vargas 2018.jpg
Vargas at the 2018 Texas Book Festival
Born (1981-02-03) February 3, 1981 (age 40)
Alma materSan Francisco State University (BA)
OccupationJournalist, filmmaker, activist
OrganizationDefine American[1]
AwardsPulitzer Prize
The Sidney Award
Freedom to Write award

Jose Antonio Vargas (born February 3, 1981) is a journalist, filmmaker, and immigration rights activist. Born in the Philippines and raised in the United States from the age of twelve, he was part of The Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2008 for coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting online and in print.[2] Vargas has also worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Philadelphia Daily News, and The Huffington Post.[3] He wrote, produced, and directed the autobiographical 2013 film Documented, which CNN Films broadcast in June 2014.

In a June 2011 essay in The New York Times Magazine, Vargas revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant[3] in an effort to promote dialogue about the immigration system in the U.S. and to advocate for the DREAM Act, which would provide children in similar circumstances with a path to citizenship. A year later, a day after the publication of his Time cover story about his continued uncertainty regarding his immigration status, the Obama administration announced it was halting the deportation of undocumented immigrants age 30 and under, who would be eligible for the DREAM Act. Vargas, who had just turned 31, did not qualify.[4]

Vargas is the founder of Define American, a nonprofit organization intended to open up dialogue about the criteria people use to determine who is an American. He has said: "I am an American. I just don't have the right papers."[5]

In September 2018 his memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, was published by Dey Street.[6]

Personal life and education[edit]

Vargas was born in Antipolo[7] in the Philippines. In 1993, when Vargas was twelve, his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in the U.S. without obtaining authorization for him to stay in the country permanently; his grandparents were naturalized U.S. citizens.[3] In Mountain View, California, he attended Crittenden Middle School and Mountain View High School.[8] He did not learn of his immigration status until 1997 when, at age 16, he attempted to obtain a California driver's license with identity documents provided by his family that he then discovered were fraudulent. He kept his immigration status secret, pursuing his education and fitting in as an American with the help of friends and teachers. He used a Filipino passport and false documents that included a green card and a driver's license to help him avoid deportation.[3]

His high school English teacher introduced him to journalism,[9] and in 1998 he began an internship at the Mountain View Voice, a local newspaper. He later became a copy boy for the San Francisco Chronicle. Unable to apply for traditional financial aid due to his status, with the help of his high school principal and school superintendent, Vargas secured a private scholarship to attend San Francisco State University,[10] where he earned a degree in political science and Black Studies. In the summers during college he interned for the Philadelphia Daily News and The Washington Post.[8]

Vargas came out as gay during his senior year of high school in 1999, a decision he later described as "less daunting than coming out about my legal status".[3] He spoke out against the Defense of Marriage Act, calling it an immigration issue that disadvantages people similar to him from "marry[ing] my way into citizenship like straight people can".[11]


Work for The Washington Post[edit]

In 2004, immediately after graduation from San Francisco State, he was hired by the Style section of The Washington Post to cover the video game boom.[8] He became known for his anecdotal coverage of the HIV epidemic in Washington.[12] His coverage was adapted into a 2010 documentary entitled, The Other City.[8] In 2007, he was part of the Washington Post team covering the shootings at Virginia Tech, whose work earned a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.[2]

When Vargas made a pitch for an assignment as a politics reporter for the Post, he told his editor, "You need someone to cover the presidential campaign who has a Facebook account and who looks at YouTube every day." Vargas went on to cover the 2008 presidential campaign,[12] including a front-page article in 2007 about Wikipedia's impact on the 2008 election.[13]

He also wrote an online column entitled "The Clickocracy" on the Post's website.[14]

Pulitzer Prize[edit]

Vargas authored or contributed to three Washington Post articles about the Virginia Tech shootings that were awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.[2]

In "Students Make Connections at a Time of Total Disconnect" on April 17, 2007, Vargas reported on the role of technology in student experiences during the Virginia Tech shootings.[15] He described graduate student Jamal Albarghouti running toward the gunshots when he heard them, taking out his cell phone to take a shaky, one-minute video that later was aired on "This is what this YouTube-Facebook-instant messaging generation does," Vargas wrote. "Witness. Record. Share." The article also discussed the role of Facebook, which students used to keep in touch during the event. Albarghouti returned to his apartment to find 279 new Facebook messages, Vargas recounted, and another student, Trey Perkins, faced a similar inundation.

Vargas contributed to the article "'Pop, Pop, Pop': Students Down, Doors Barred, Leaps to Safety," which was published on April 17, 2007.[16] Through interviews with eyewitnesses, the story recounted the events of the Virginia Tech shootings. He also contributed to the article "That Was the Desk I Chose to Die Under," which ran in The Washington Post on April 19, 2007.[17] Vargas gained an interview with an eyewitness to the shootings by approaching him through Facebook, he explained to GMA News. "I got him on the phone, we talked for about 25 minutes, and he was the only eyewitness we had on the story, so it was a critical part of it," Vargas explained.[7]

Work for The Huffington Post[edit]

In July 2009, Vargas left the Post to join The Huffington Post, part of an exodus of young talent from the paper.[18] Arianna Huffington introduced herself to Vargas at a Washington Press Club Foundation dinner after overhearing someone mistake him for a busboy.

Vargas joined Huffington Post as technology and innovations editor, where he then created a "Technology as Anthropology" blog and launched the Technology vertical in September 2009 and the College vertical in February 2010.[19]

Other work[edit]

Vargas's articles on the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C., inspired a feature-length documentary, The Other City, which he co-produced and wrote. Directed by Susan Koch and co-produced by Sheila Johnson, the documentary premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival[20] and aired on Showtime.[21]

In September 2010, Vargas profiled Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in an article for The New Yorker.[22][23]

In February 2015, Vargas launched a venture called #EmergingUS that will use video and commentary to explore race and the "evolving American identity."[24]

In July 2015, Vargas directed and starred in a new documentary, White People, about the concept of white privilege.[25] The film debuted on MTV,[25][26] and was nominated for Daytime Emmy and Shorty awards.

In 2019, Vargas became a co-producer of Heidi Schreck's Tony-nominated Broadway play What the Constitution Means to Me.[27]

Immigration law advocacy[edit]

I define "American" as someone who works really hard, someone who is proud to be in this country and wants to contribute to it. I'm independent. I pay taxes. I'm self-sufficient. I'm an American, I just don't have the right papers. I take full responsibility for my actions, and I'm sorry for the laws that I have broken.

— Jose Antonio Vargas[5]

In 2011, Vargas wrote an essay for The New York Times Sunday Magazine in which he revealed that he is an undocumented immigrant. He detailed how he came to discover this as a teenager and kept it hidden for almost 15 years, during which time he worked, paid taxes, and worried that his status would be exposed.[3] Vargas's essay received much media attention and was at the top of the Times "most-emailed" list the week it was published.[28] He received the June 2011 Sidney Award for his essay, an award given by The Sidney Hillman Foundation to what they evaluate as the "outstanding piece of socially-conscious journalism" published each month.[29]

Vargas founded Define American in 2011, a nonprofit project aimed at facilitating dialogue about immigration issues including the DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship through education or service in the military.[3] The organization also invites individuals to share their experiences via video.[9][30] In 2012, through Define American, Vargas began to monitor the use of the term "illegal immigrant" in the media, hoping to influence news organizations to use the term "undocumented" instead, which Vargas argues is a less dehumanizing term. His targets included The New York Times and the Associated Press.[31] In April 2013, the Associated Press announced that they would no longer use the term "illegal" to describe people and would abandon the term "illegal immigrant"; The New York Times said it also was reviewing its style guides regarding the term. Vargas welcomed the AP decision, saying that he hoped other news organizations would follow their example.[32]

In 2012, Vargas worked with filmmaker Chris Weitz on a group of four short documentaries entitled Is this Alabama? about the effects of Alabama's immigration legislation.[33][34] The documentary, which advocates the repeal of HB 56, is a collaborative effort on the part of Define American, America's Voice, and the Center for American Progress.[35]

In June 2012, Vargas wrote a cover story for Time magazine about the uncertainty of his life "in limbo" during the year following his revelation that he was an undocumented immigrant.[4] The day after the article appeared, President Obama announced that his administration would halt the deportation of undocumented immigrants age 30 and under, who would qualify for DREAM Act relief, and provide work permits for them, allowing them to remain in the U.S. legally;[36] Vargas, at age 31, however, was not eligible for this program, but greeted it as a "victory for DREAMers".[37]

In the years since revealing his status in 2011, Vargas has become the public face of undocumented immigrants. He presented emotional testimony at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February 2013.[10][38][39]

Vargas wrote, directed, and produced the autobiographical film, Documented: A film by an undocumented American, released in 2013 and presented by CNN Films in 2014.[40] It portrays his life from the time he was sent from the Philippines to the United States as a child, his discovery of his immigration status at age 16, his college years, his career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his decision for public revelation of his status as undocumented. The film chronicles his rise as an outspoken advocate for the undocumented, while portraying the personal pain his circumstances have caused him and his family, especially the separation from his mother whom he has not seen in more than 20 years.[41][42] The film was funded by a former Facebook president, Sean Parker, who also was its executive producer.[43][relevant? ]

Vargas has worked closely with the tech lobbying group in their efforts to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. He referred to the growing collaboration between Silicon Valley leaders and immigrant activists as a "marriage of unlikely allies" that bodes well for the passage of reform.[44] Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who generally maintains a low public profile, spoke before the screening of Documented to introduce Vargas and to lobby House members to keep up reform momentum. Zuckerberg recounted his experience tutoring undocumented students as his inspiration for starting[45]

In November 2013, Vargas served on the panel of judges for the DREAMer Hackathon hosted by at LinkedIn headquarters. He was joined by Zuckerberg, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and President Joe Green. The 24-hour hackathon brought together undocumented immigrants and Silicon Valley tech veterans to create immigration reform advocacy projects.[46] The panel selected Push4Reform, a web application developed by a team of DREAMers to connect supporters to Congress, as the winning advocacy tool.[47]

On July 15, 2014, Vargas was arrested by immigration authorities while trying to leave the border town of McAllen, Texas.[48][49] Vargas was there for a vigil organized by United We Dream, outside a shelter for recently released Central American migrants. He had a camera crew from Define American with him to interview and film undocumented immigrant minor children from Central America. Vargas later wrote that he did not realize until he was there that he would have to cross through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint in order to leave the Rio Grande Valley. He went through airport security with his Philippine passport and a pocket-size copy of the United States Constitution. Initially, he was cleared by the Transportation Security Administration, but a border agent took his passport, reviewed his documents, asked him some questions, placed him in handcuffs, and escorted him to the McAllen Border Patrol station for further questioning. He was released later that day.[50][51][52] A statement followed that the release was because he had no history of criminal activity.

PEN Center USA announced in July 2014 that they are giving Vargas their 2014 Freedom to Write award for immigration advocacy in his writing.[53]

In June 2018, Vargas received criticism for circulating an image of a little boy crying behind a fence on Twitter, using the caption "This is what happens when a government believes people are 'illegal.' Kids in cages." It garnered more than 35,000 likes and 24,000 retweets. It was later discovered that the image was sourced from a private Facebook account and was taken out of context, as the photo was actually from a staged protest against U.S. President Trump's immigration policy in Dallas, Texas, on June 10, 2018. Vargas received many calls to remove the photo from Twitter, including from actor Misha Collins who said Vargas was guilty of "the same misinformation as Trump and you are giving fodder to the other side." Vargas, however, stood by his original tweets, saying "Read what I wrote. All I said [about] the photo was this is what happens when a gov't considers people 'illegal.'"[54][55][56]

Awards and recognitions[edit]


  1. ^ "Our Team". DefineAmerican. 2011. Archived from the original on March 9, 2012. Retrieved February 29, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c "Breaking News Reporting". The Pulitzer Prizes ( Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Vargas, Jose Antonio. "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant", The New York Times, June 22, 2011, accessed June 22, 2011.
  4. ^ a b Vargas, Jose Antonio (June 25, 2012). "Jose Antonio Vargas' Life as an Undocumented Immigrant". TIME. Retrieved June 15, 2012.
  5. ^ a b Berestein Rojas, Leslie (June 22, 2011). "Jose Antonio Vargas: 'I'm an American, I just don't have the right papers'". Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  6. ^ "Lit Hub's Fall 2018 Nonfiction Preview: Memoir". Literary Hub. September 5, 2018. Retrieved September 5, 2018.
  7. ^ a b Ilustre, Jennie L. "Jose Antonio Vargas: Pulitzer Prize Winner", GMA News Online, April 10, 2008, accessed June 23, 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d "From MV to D.C.: Pulitzer Prize-winning Mountain View alumnus chats with mentor". Los Altos Online. October 15, 2008. Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  9. ^ a b Younjoo Sang (February 22, 2012). "Jose Antonio Vargas calls for immigration reform". Michigan Daily. Retrieved March 4, 2012.
  10. ^ a b "Senate Judiciary Committee Testimony: Jose Antonio Vargas" (PDF). United States Senate. February 13, 2013. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  11. ^ Wilkes-Edrington, Lindsay (February 1, 2013). "Jose Antonio Vargas On John McCain: Gay Undocumented Journalist Criticizes Senator's Immigration Stance (VIDEO)". The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  12. ^ a b "Blogs Are Yesterday. Now It's Vlog Time.,". Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  13. ^ Vargas, Jose Antonio (September 17, 2007). "On Wikipedia, Debating 2008 Hopefuls' Every Facet". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 5, 2012.
  14. ^ "Jose Antonio Vargas work". Archived from the original on April 29, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
  15. ^ "Students Make Connections at a Time of Total Disconnect". April 17, 2007. Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  16. ^ "'Pop, Pop, Pop': Students Down, Doors Barred, Leaps to Safety". April 17, 2007. Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  17. ^ "That Was the Desk I Chose to Die Under". April 19, 2007. Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  18. ^ "Young Stars Leaving the Washington Post". Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  19. ^ Calderone, Michael (July 21, 2009). "WaPo's Vargas heads to HuffPost". Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  20. ^ Lazarus, Catie "Tribeca Talks: The Other City" Archived March 12, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. April 30, 2010, accessed June 23, 2011.
  21. ^ "The Other City" Archived April 10, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, Showtime website, accessed June 22, 2011.
  22. ^ Vargas, Jose Antonio. "The Face of Facebook" The New Yorker, September 20, 2010.
  23. ^ "The New Yorker Profiles Mark Zuckerberg". September 13, 2010. Retrieved June 25, 2011.
  24. ^ Pierson, David (February 15, 2015). "Jose Antonio Vargas, L.A. Times in multimedia venture on race". Los Angeles Times.
  25. ^ a b Craven, Julia (July 16, 2015). "White Millennials Explain What It Means To Be White In America, And You Should Listen". The Huffington Post.
  26. ^ Kornhaber, Spencer (July 23, 2015). "The Backlash to MTV's 'White People' Shows Why It Needed to Be Made". The Atlantic. Retrieved August 21, 2019.
  27. ^ Ramos, Dino-Ray (February 28, 2019). "'What The Constitution Means To Me' Adds Immigration Rights Activist and Writer Jose Antonio Vargas As Producer". Deadline. Retrieved August 21, 2019.
  28. ^ Martin, Courtney E. (June 28, 2011). "For Undocumented Immigrants, Activism Can Invite a Deportation Threat". The Nation. Retrieved June 29, 2011.
  29. ^ "Jose Antonio Vargas Wins June Sidney for Account of His Life as an Undocumented Immigrant". The Sidney Hillman Foundation. July 15, 2011. Archived from the original on March 13, 2012. Retrieved March 7, 2012.
  30. ^ "Yes! Magazine". Positive Futures Network. June 23, 2011. Retrieved March 4, 2012.
  31. ^ Hesson, Ted (September 21, 2012). "Jose Antonio Vargas Challenges NYT and AP To Drop 'Illegal Immigrant'". ABC News. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  32. ^ Costantini, Christina (April 3, 2013). "'Illegal Immigrant' Nixed by AP". ABC News. Retrieved April 3, 2013.
  33. ^ Brookes, Julian (February 24, 2012). "Oscars: How A Better Life's Chris Weitz and Demian Bichir Got Political". Rolling Stone. Retrieved March 7, 2012.
  34. ^ Bickham, Tamika (February 22, 2012). "Alabama's Illegal Immigration Law Gets Attention From Hollywood". CBS 8 News: WAKA Montgomery. Archived from the original on November 5, 2013. Retrieved March 19, 2012.
  35. ^ "'Is This Alabama?' Documentary Pushes For HB 56 Immigration Law Repeal – Huffington Post". Birmingham Observer. February 15, 2012. Retrieved March 19, 2012.[permanent dead link]
  36. ^ Franke-Ruta, Garance (June 15, 2012). "Obama's Game Changer on Young Illegal Immigrants". The Atlantic. Retrieved June 15, 2012.
  37. ^ Hudson, John (June 15, 2012). "New Immigration Policy Won't Save Jose Antonio Vargas". The Atlantic Wire. Retrieved June 15, 2012.
  38. ^ Sherer, Michael (February 14, 2013). "Jose Antonio Vargas' Emotional Senate Testimony". Time. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  39. ^ Vargas, Jose Antonio (February 13, 2013). "My Family's Papers". The New York Times. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  40. ^ Vargas, Jose Antonio (June 30, 2014). "Undocumented and hiding in plain sight". CNN. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
  41. ^ Vargas, Jose Antonio (March 13, 2014). "Why I made 'Documented'". CNN. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
  42. ^ O'Sullivan, Michael (May 29, 2014). "'Documented' movie review: Jose Antonio Vargas's self-portrait with a mission". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
  43. ^ CNN Acquires Vargas' Immigration Film Documented, Brett Zongker, AP, November 19, 2013.
  44. ^ "Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks out on immigration reform". San Jose Mercury News. August 5, 2013. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  45. ^ Quinn, Michelle (August 6, 2013). "Mark Zuckerberg: Immigration stakes high for tech, undocumented immigrants". Politico. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  46. ^ Wagner, Kurt (November 22, 2013). "A Hackathon for Immigration Reform Worth Its Weight in Code". Mashable. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  47. ^ Segall, Laurie (January 23, 2014). "FWD.US launches immigration advocacy app". Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  48. ^ Jose Antonio Vargas Arrest Puts Focus On Border Checkpoints, Suzanne Gamboa, NBC News, July 15, 2014.
  49. ^ Journalist-turned-immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas detained at Texas airport, J. Freedom du Lac, The Washington Post, July 15, 2014.
  50. ^ Preston, Julia (July 15, 2014). "Outspoken Immigrant Advocate, Also Undocumented, Is Held in Texas". The New York Times. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  51. ^ McLaughlin, Eliott C. (July 15, 2014). "Journalist Jose Vargas, symbol of immigration debate, detained at airport". CNN. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  52. ^ Bobic, Igor; Grim, Ryan (July 15, 2014). "Undocumented Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas Detained At The Border". Huffington Post. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  53. ^ Bloom, David (July 30, 2014). "Norman Lear Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN Center USA". Retrieved August 1, 2014.
  54. ^ Connor, Alex (June 18, 2018). "'The actual thing is way, way worse than we were depicting,' says photographer behind viral photo of caged kid". USA Today. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  55. ^ Mezzofiore, Gianluca (June 18, 2018). "The truth behind this photo of an 'immigrant child' crying inside a cage". CNN. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  56. ^ Perez, Maria (June 19, 2018). "Viral photo of caged child that sparked outrage was not from a detention facility". Newsweek. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  57. ^ "Salem Award » Voices Against Injustice". Voices Against Injustice. Retrieved September 19, 2019.
  58. ^ "Jose Antonio Vargas". Commencement. Colby College. May 24, 2015.
  59. ^ "Out100: Jose Antonio Vargas". Out. November 9, 2015. Retrieved October 15, 2018.
  60. ^ "LGBTQ Pride Month: A Conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas". The Graduate Center. City University of New York. Retrieved October 15, 2018.
  61. ^ "Renowned Civil Rights Litigator Mary L. Bonauto and Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist/Activist Jose Antonio Vargas to Receive Honorary Degrees and Address the Class of 2017". John Jay College of Criminal Justice. May 1, 2017. Retrieved October 15, 2018.
  62. ^ "Television Journalist Soledad O'Brien to Speak at 2019 Commencement". Emerson College Today. Emerson College. April 11, 2019.
  63. ^ Forestieri, Kevin (June 21, 2018). "Board votes to name school after Jose Antonio Vargas". The Mountain View Voice. Retrieved October 15, 2018.
  64. ^ Wigglesworth, Alex (August 20, 2019). "Bay Area school named for journalist who publicly identified as 'undocumented' immigrant". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 20, 2019.
  65. ^ Avants, Maggie (June 18, 2018). "Activist Jose Antonio Vargas Has School Named In His Honor". Mountain View, CA Patch. Retrieved August 21, 2019.

External links[edit]