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Person of the Month: Jose Antonio Vargas

"America is mixed. America is immigrants."

Jose Antonio Vargas is a journalist and filmmaker who is known for his tireless work for undocumented immigrants and the reform of the US immigration system. Born in Antipolo, Philippines, he was sent by his mother to the US at the age of 12 to live with his naturalized grandparents in the hopes of a better life. Vargas was unaware of his status as an undocumented immigrant until 1997 at the age of 16, while trying to get a California driver’s license. Afraid of being deported, he utilized his Filipino passport and false documents including a green card and driver’s license to stay in the US.

He was first introduced to journalism by one of his high school English teacher and shortly after, interned at a local newspaper Mountain View Voice. After acquiring a private scholarship with the help of his school principal and superintendent, he attended the San Francisco State University where he would graduate with a degree in political science and Black Studies. He didn’t abandon his interest in journalism, however, interning for the Philadelphia Daily News and The Washington Post during the summer. Shortly after graduating in 2004, he was hired by The Washington Post to follow the video game boom. Vargas’ biggest debut was with his anecdotal coverage of the HIV epidemic in Washington, which was later adapted in a documentary he helped co-produce and write called The Other City. In 2007, he and a team of Washington Post journalists covered the Virginia Tech shootings and would earn a Pulitzer Prize for it in 2008.

In 2011, Vargas revealed his status as a undocumented immigrant in an article in the New York Times, hoping that it would promote dialogue about the US immigration system and the DREAM Act—an act which would provide undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship through education or the military service. He stated in a later interview that it was a more daunting experience when he revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant than when he came out as gay in 1999. His article won the 2011 Sidney Award, an award given by The Sidney Hillman Foundation for “outstanding piece[s] of socially conscious journalism.” He has since become the face for advocacy of undocumented immigrants.

Vargas continued his work with the founding of Define American in 2011, which is a group dedicated to facilitating dialogue about immigration issues and promoting the DREAM Act. He also worked closely with the tech advocacy group to advocate for immigration reform. In 2013, he was on a panel of judges for the DREAMer Hackathon alongside such tech figures like the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, Dropbox CEO Reid Hoffman, and president Joe Green. Vargas also released an autobiographical documentary called Documented in 2013 about his own experience as an undocumented immigrant to further encourage discourse surrounding the lives of immigrants in the US.

Thanks to Vargas, many changes have been made in the US concerning the immigration system. For example, his encouragement to use the word “undocumented immigrant” instead of “illegal immigrant” to humanize those under such conditions has caused the Associated Press to abandon the use of the term “illegal” and the New York Times to reevaluate its rules surrounding the topic. However, the struggle for immigration rights is hardly over and he’s still hard at work advocating for undocumented immigrants.

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