Q&A with Journalist and Filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and Tony-nominated producer.

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and Tony-nominated producer. A leading voice for the human rights of immigrants, he founded the non-profit media and culture organization Define American, named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company. His best-selling memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, was published by HarperCollins in 2018. Most recently, he co-produced Heidi Schreck’s acclaimed Broadway play What the Constitution Means to Me, which was nominated for two 2019 Tony awards, including Best Play. In 2011, the New York Times Magazine published a groundbreaking essay he wrote in which he revealed and chronicled his life in America as an undocumented immigrant.

So tell us a little bit about who you are and what it is you do.

Well, who I am and what I do are really connected. I was born in the Philippines, and I woke up one morning and my mother said I was going to America to live with her parents, my grandparents. And off I went. That was the last time I saw her. That was 26 years ago.

So I got here when I was 12, and I found out that I was here illegally when I was 16, when I got a driver’s license. I didn’t have the right document when I went to the DMV. Shortly after that I decided to become a journalist, purely because I wanted my name, my real name, to exist on a real piece of paper. That was the only reason why I became a print journalist. I became a writer so I could write my way into America.

I had a career as a journalist from the ages of 17 to 30, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, then the the Washington Post, and then for magazines like Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. And then when I was 30, almost a decade ago, I decided that I was done lying about who I am and trying to pass, which is what a lot of undocumented people do. We try to pass as American, whatever that even means.

I was basically hiding in plain sight as a journalist. No one ever realized that my social security number is not valid for work, my green card is fake. So I decided to quote-unquote “come out” as undocumented, which, interestingly enough, is the second time in my life that I’ve come out. So with the help of three friends I started an organization called Define American. We are an organization that uses stories to remind people that when we talk about migration, we’re actually talking about human beings. We use stories to change the narrative of migration and how we talk about immigration in this country. That’s what I do.

Why is this issue of defining American so important at this moment and in this year?

This year is interesting. It hasn’t been since the year 2000 when we had a census and a presidential election happening at once. And this is the first time when we’ve had the census and a presidential election in the age of social media.

I was one of the first reporters to actually cover social media — I owe my Pulitzer to Facebook. Social media for me has always been about stories, the different stories that we tell. There’s that great Anaïs Nin quote: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” I think that’s what we’re living through. We are living with our stories and grappling with how we stand in the larger narrative. And I cannot think of a more important question when it comes to the identity of our country, because it is our country together, right? There are many Americans, but there is one United States of America. So how do we define American? Is it a people? Is it a place? Is it ideas?

I think this question of defining American inevitably leads to the question of American history. I subscribe to William Faulkner’s belief, that the past is never past — it’s present. History is not yesterday, history is actually today. And the history that we have collectively told each other about how we got to be what we are as a country and who we are as a people, I think that’s what we’re facing. It’s way bigger than a Republican or Democrat, and it’s certainly way bigger than migration as an issue that only concerns the border or the wall in Mexico.

So at Define American, you’re doing a lot of work on engaging with cultural engines and storytellers and producers of media to try and change narratives. Can you share in a practical sense what what that work looks like?

In many ways, the work that we do became clearer after Trump got elected. I have been very consistent about the fact that you cannot change the politics of immigration and the policies that govern immigration until you’ve changed the culture in which people understand what the issue is. And yet for many people the focus has always been, “Let’s pass laws” and “Let’s push for immigration reform,” without really understanding that just because you passed the law doesn’t mean all of a sudden millions of people will feel included in this country and can live their lives with dignity. But after Trump got elected, people started understanding, “Oh, that’s what it means.” Look, in this country, being anti-immigrant is not only culturally acceptable, being anti-immigrant wins you the White House.

So how does telling stories change that?

That’s a cultural conversation. Let me give you an example. We heard about a show called Superstore, which is on NBC as a comedy, and we heard that there was a character that they were going to introduce — an undocumented gay Filipino character. So we reached out and they said, “Oh yeah, we were inspired by Jose’s story. We’re going to introduce this character, and then we want to make the character legal.” And we’re like, “How are you going to do that? Are you just magically going to pass immigration reform to make the character legal?” So that kicked off, in a deeper way, our consultation with writers’ rooms in Hollywood.

Like most Americans, TV writers have no idea how the immigration process works or doesn’t work. So that’s when we started sending undocumented people to writers’ rooms. That’s when we started directly working with writers’ rooms and producers and directors to better integrate accurate, contextual, and humanizing stories.

At a time like this, in which everything is so partisan and we’re all in our own filter bubbles, storytelling is one of the few places that actually makes room for nuance and complexity, which an issue as complex as immigration requires.

What kind of reception do you and your colleagues get in a writers’ room? Are you welcomed with open arms, or are people suspicious that you have this agenda that’s going to intrude on their creative process? How does that work?

Well, I think it helps that I myself am a filmmaker. I’ve made three documentaries now and I know what the filmmaking process is, and I know as a filmmaker and as a journalist that the last thing journalists and filmmakers and writers want to do is to be told what to write or how to write it, right? The moment they smell an agenda, they’re going to be suspicious. So that’s why for us it’s been very important make sure that we respect the creative process.

Ideally what happens is we get in really early and we have an entire menu of support that we provide. We read scripts, and if they ask us to actually be on set, we do that. We talk to writers as they’re going through, “what does an ICE raid really look like?” So it really varies, but I have to say it’s respectful of the fact that writers have their job, and our job is to help them portray accurate, nuanced, complex portrayals of immigrants and immigration. That is our number one goal.

You once mentioned that the TV shows people watch can be an incredible predictor of who they vote for. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

So this was a study that the New York Times published, I think right after the 2016 presidential election, that said that the television shows you watch are a greater indicator of who you voted for than the political party you belong to. And so at Define American, we try to make sure that we’re not just preaching to the choir but actually being intentional about the shows that we’re consulting on.

So for example, Grey’s Anatomy is one of the most popular shows among Trump voters. So when President Trump announced he was going to end DACA, one of the first people to reach out to me was Shonda Rhimes. She reached out and she said, “This is horrible. How can we help?” So we ended up working with another organization, Pre-Health Dreamers, specifically for undocumented students in the medical profession. We reached out to them and actually sent undocumented medical students to the writers’ room of Grey’s Anatomy, and Grey’s Anatomy ended up creating this character, this undocumented medical student who was an intern, and ICE shows up.

For us, helping with this episode, we reached more people than, say, an MSNBC hit on a given evening, you know what I mean? And again, the media you consume is so indicative of what you believe in, right? MSNBC people, Fox News people, CNN people. So television shows offer a chance for us to reach Fox News viewers.

There’s another arm of this work, which is with local journalists. Why focus on local newsrooms?

I actually think local news is more important than ever. We need to support local journalism, and it’s becoming rarer. But more importantly, all politics is local. I’ve done more than 1,800 events in 49 states in eight and a half years. I’ve been everywhere, and I can tell you that the power of the local newspaper and the local television news is as important as ever. So for us, the journalism work started very, very early on. It started even before the entertainment media work.

The moment I came out as undocumented — I came out in the New York Times Magazine — one of the first things I said was, “Can we please stop calling people illegal?” Like, “Can news organizations be more precise about the language they use? And can newspapers actually be more factual and contextual.” To this day, the New York Times and the Washington Post still refer to undocumented people as illegal in some of their articles.

Why is that so important?

Let me be very precise about it. So take me, for example. I am here illegally, without authorization from the government. But I, as a person, am not illegal. Actions can be illegal. People cannot.

There was an article yesterday that said that there were 63,000 migrant children locked up in custody last year. I would argue that we actually got to the point that we are at because we don’t think people are people. They’re what? They’re illegal. It’s almost as if we’ve created this parallel reality in which what is not acceptable for people is acceptable for those people because, guess what, they’re illegals anyway.

One of the biggest wins for us at Define American was when we ended up as one of the organizations that pressured the Associated Press to stop using “illegal immigrant” and to stop calling people illegal. The argument was, “Let’s be more precise, let’s be more descriptive.” For example writing “Said Jose Antonio Vargas, comma, who entered the country illegally when he was 12 years old” provides you more context than just calling somebody illegal. This is the process, therefore we have to explain to people what the process is. And this is why facts matter and sources matter.

There’s a new study that Define American just did with MIT that’s looking at four major newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and USA Today — and the sources they cite when they report on immigration. Unfortunately, a lot of the sources they cite are actually anti-immigrant groups with ties to white supremacists. And even the New York Times and the Washington Post, they don’t divulge that in their reporting.

So tell me, in terms of the day-to-day work that you’re doing with local journalists, what does that look like? How are you engaging with them?

Let me give you an example. I flew to Kentucky with the executive director of Define American, Ryan Eller, who lives there, and I ended up doing a Define American event tied to my book in Lexington. Part of the agreement that we had with the organizers of the event was to connect us to local journalists so we could do a briefing of the findings of our report with MIT. So we must have had 30 local journalists, and most of them were actually producers from local television news. So we presented this information and we said, “Look, we’re a resource. We would love to help you.”

And this is Kentucky, right? It’s a red state. I don’t know how people would categorize Lexington, but people would not consider it a progressive liberal city. So there was one woman who was an anchor for one of the local television stations, and she ended up talking about when president Trump said what he said about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and she was asking me, “Can I call that racist? Is it okay for me to use the word racist for what the president said?” I said to her, “Well, do you think it’s okay? Is it factual?” And she goes, “Yes it is, but I don’t know if I can say it.” It was a fascinating conversation. She said, “As a white journalist, I feel like I have to say it, but then if I say it, people are going to say I have an agenda.” And I ended up saying to her, “Look, our job here is to inform our audience, right? The public. And if it’s racist, we have to call it what it is.” And then she started crying.

That was really the first time that we as an organization met with a local gaggle of journalists like that. And it’s something that we plan on doing more this year, especially this year in particular.

And how many are you connected with now, would you say?

Oh, quite a few. I don’t know if you remember when President Trump started using “chain migration.” At Define American, we emailed hundreds of reporters, basically reminding them that, hey, when president Trump uses chain migration, what does he mean by that? Right? We have to question it. At the very least you have to put it in quotation marks.

We are a national organization, and our job is to work with media producers at all levels. So now we are building our local journalism strategy. We’re in the process of doing that right now. That event in Lexington, Kentucky, is a model for what we can be doing with local news organizations to serve as resources. One last thing I want to add because a lot of what happens is we are going to hear from a journalist in Ohio or in Louisiana asking, “Hey, can you connect me to a DACA recipient? Hey, do you know an undocumented woman who just crossed the border and who can’t find her kid?” And so that’s what we do, we connect journalists with people.

Which is so valuable given their lack of resources.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

And what’s our agenda? Our agenda is: How do we put people at the center of this story? That’s our agenda.

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