At age 16, Jose Antonio Vargas went to the motor vehicles department to get a driver’s license and discovered he was in the U.S. illegally.
The green card he’d been given by family when he moved to America from the Philippines as a child was a fake. For years Vargas kept his status a secret, even as he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose writing appeared in publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone and the New Yorker.
Vargas will be telling his story to University of Oregon audiences as the 2017-18 Wayne Morse Chair of Law and Politics. On Oct. 24, he will give a public lecture, “Define American: My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” The event begins at 7 p.m. in Room 156, Straub Hall.
In 2011, Vargas wrote a groundbreaking essay for New York Times Magazine revealing himself as undocumented and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in conjunction with a follow-up story he wrote. Some of the ramifications were immediate: He lost the driver’s license he’d finally managed to obtain, and he had to have difficult conversations with close friends to whom he’d never told his secret. His status makes it unsafe to have a fixed address, so he travels most of the time, living in hotel rooms and staying with friends.
But his life has also changed in unexpectedly good ways.
“I’ve met so many incredible people who have told me their stories and filled me with inspiration and with hope,” Vargas said. “I’ve been able to do what I love — tell stories — in their service and in service of my country.”
Vargas hopes to inspire audience members to do their own research and ask harder questions. “Living through the Trump era, I cannot think of a more compelling, provocative and harder question than ‘How do we define American?’” Vargas said.
To ensure that Americans understand what he believes is the most heavily politicized human rights issue of our time, Vargas founded Define American, a nonprofit that uses storytelling to elevate the conversation around immigration, and #EmergingUS, a production company focusing on race, immigration and American identity.
He produced and directed “Documented,” a documentary on his undocumented experience that aired on CNN in 2014, and “White People,” an Emmy-nominated television special that aired on MTV in 2015.
Screenings of “Documented” will be held in Eugene on Nov. 6 at 6:30 p.m. in Room 175, Knight Law Center and in Portland on Nov. 9 at 5:30 p.m. in the White Stag Block's Papé Room. Both screenings will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Vargas. The events are free and open to the public. Registration for the Portland event is required, because space is limited.
Vargas’s visit is in conjunction with the Wayne Morse Center’s 2017-19 theme, Borders, Migration and Belonging.
“We are absolutely thrilled that Jose Antonio Vargas will be with us at the WMC as we launch our new theme,” said Ellen Herman, codirector of the Wayne Morse Center. “Questions related to migrants and refugees could hardly be more timely or urgent, in this country and around the world, which is facing the largest migration-related crisis since World War II. Vargas is a symbol of personal bravery, humanitarianism and the possibility that national and international policies on migration and immigration can be reformed in ways that elevate the enduring strength of human connection over everything that divides us.”
During his time at the UO, Vargas will also co-teach a class in the Department of Romance Languages, give a talk at the Portland City Club and meet with other groups and classes. More information on public events can be found at the Wayne Morse Center website.
—By Abbie Stillie, Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics