Jose Antonio Vargas is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a ground-breaking essay published in The New York Times Magazine in 2011. The article stunned media and political circles throughout the country and attracted world-wide coverage. Vargas has since testified at a United States Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform, and has been at the forefront of challenging the media’s coverage of undocumented immigrants.
Vargas is a firm believer that to change the politics of immigration and citizenship, we must change the way we portray undocumented people and their roles in society, compelling him to write, produce, and direct the film Documented. The documentary chronicles his own journey while closely exploring the plight of other undocumented immigrants in America and the politics that surround the hotly contested issue of “legal status.” Following the high praise the film’s initial screenings received, CNN debuted the film in June 2014.
Vargas is also the founder of Define American, a media and culture campaign that seeks to elevate the conversation around immigration and citizenship in a changing America.
At the Podium
Jose Antonio Vargas takes audiences deeper into his story, sharing details of his journey to America from the Philippines as a child; his journey through America as an immigration reform activist; and his journey inward as he re-connects with his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in person in over 20 years. With anecdotes from both his own story and the struggles of countless other undocumented immigrants in America, Vargas poignantly explores one of the most divisive questions facing our country today: how do you define “American”?
After being born and reared in the Philippines, Jose Antonio Vargas’ mother, wanting to give her son a better life, sent him to live with his grandparents in Silicon Valley in 1993. Vargas loved his new homeland and immersed himself in American culture; he spoke the language perfectly, studied hard in school, and loved writing for the school paper.
However, at 16 years old when applying for his Learner’s permit at the DMV, he discovered his green card was a fake, which was later confirmed by his grandfather. Vargas then realized he needed to continue hiding his true identity to avoid deportation and be able to pursue his American dream – a career in journalism.
And succeed he did. Vargas wrote a widely circulated profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker. He also served as a senior contributing editor at The Huffington Post, where he launched the Technology and College sections and created the Technology as Anthropology blog, which focuses on tech’s impact on people and how they behave. He covered the tech and video game culture, HIV/AIDS, and the 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post, and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. His 2006 series on HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. inspired a feature-length documentary — The Other City — which he co-produced and wrote. The documentary premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and aired on Showtime. In 2007, the daily journal Politico named him one of the “50 Politicos to Watch”.
He’s written for daily newspapers (Philadelphia Daily News, San Francisco Chronicle) and national magazines (Rolling Stone and New York) and has appeared on CNN, ABC News and PBS NewsHour. He taught “Storytelling 2.0” at Georgetown University and served on the advisory board for the Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism, housed at American University.
However, despite all his achievements, the dark shadow of Vargas’ true identity continued to haunt him. Finally, in the summer of 2011, he decided he was done running. Vargas exposed his story in his groundbreaking essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” for The New York Times Magazine. A year later, he appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine worldwide with fellow undocumented immigrants as part of a follow-up story he wrote.
Vargas is a very proud alumnus of Mountain View High School and San Francisco State University, loves jazz, can’t get enough of Ben & Jerry’s, and worships at the altars of Altman, Almodovar, Didion, Baldwin, and Orwell.
He lives in New York City.