Jose Antonio Vargas: There's Nothing More American Than Fighting for Immigration Reform

April 19, 2016


Jose Antonio Vargas

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker. He’s the founder and editor of #EmergingUS and founder of Define American. He’s the producer and director of two documentary films: Documented and White People.

Luis Gutierrez

Democratic congressmember from Illinois. He is the chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Journalist and immigrant rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas was also in the Supreme Court during Monday’s oral arguments in the case, United States v. Texas. The case pits the Obama administration against 26 states which filed suit to block Obama’s action to protect more than 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist famously came out of the shadows in 2011 in The New York Times Magazine with his story, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez, you’re standing next to Jose Antonio Vargas there in the Cannon Rotunda in the congressional building.


AMY GOODMAN: Jose, you, too, were there yesterday at the Supreme Court. This, to say the least, personally affects you and your community of—well, for so long undocumented. You famously came out of the shadows. You’re a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. You were working, among other places, at The Washington Post. Your bosses, your colleagues did not know, most of them, that you were undocumented. And then you made your stand. Talk about what DACA is, what DAPA is, for those who are saying, "This is just a lot of alphabet soup; I don’t know what they’re talking about," and what this case means to you.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Well, I mean, I think, for me, it’s about dignity. I think that’s probably the first thing I would say.

The second thing is family. So, if I get DACA, DACA-plus, I would be able to, hopefully, see my mom, who I haven’t seen for 23 years this August. I have a sister. When I left the Philippines, she was about a year and a half; she’s almost 24. And I have a half-brother that I’ve never met. I’m just a person that sends money every month, like a lot of immigrant families. So I really want to see them. You know, I want to be able to reunite with my family and kind of make up for lost time in whatever way we can, right?

For many of us, work authorization—right?—is really, really important. I have to say, by the way, as an undocumented immigrant in this country, I’m actually now a job creator. I employ about 20 people through Define American and #EmergingUS. So if I get deported, what’s going to happen to these 20 American citizens who rely on me for their living? Right? We’re not only the ones actually working; we’re actually also the ones creating jobs, entrepreneurs. I mean, to be immigrant in this country—is there anything more entrepreneurial than being immigrant?

I have to say, though, by the way, Amy, I had the privilege yesterday of sitting next to Sophie and her mom at the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. I just have to say, as kind of a—as kind of a political geek, it’s probably the greatest honor of my life to sit in that hall yesterday and to see the kind of intellectual rigor that goes on when people debate ideas, when the justices debate ideas. It is so what’s lacking in most of the conversation, particularly in the Republican Party, when it comes to this issue. So that was a great privilege. And to see Sophie—she actually at one point wrote down, with her mom, the names of all the justices. And I was to her left, and she turned to me, and she’s like, "So how many do we need?" I said, "Well, it can’t be split."

AMY GOODMAN: She’s six years old.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: She’s six, Amy. I’m like, "Well, you know, Sophie, it can’t be a split, so we’re hoping, you know, maybe—maybe 6-2." And then she said, "Well, who do we need?" And I—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain that. Jose, explain that, why 4-4 is not enough.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Split is not enough, because the decision of the lower court—right?—the unjust decision of the lower court, would stay. And we can’t have that. So, and it has to be for us, hopefully, a convincing victory. So this little girl knows this. And she’s an American citizen sitting in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court next to her mom. Right? Is there anything more American than that? I wish, by the way, that everybody could see this young woman, this eloquent young woman, who is not only fighting for her family, but is fighting for so many families in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about DAPA and DACA, overall; even if this case came down in your favor, what you’re looking for, what you see lacking?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Well, I mean, I think the congressman made a really great point about this is a down payment. Right? I mean, this is not everything. This is not amnesty. I was just on Fox News last night talking to Megyn Kelly about this. This is not amnesty. Right? Let’s get that right and clear.

But what it does mean—so this is my only piece of ID from the government. It’s my California driver’s license. It actually says "federal limits apply." So, apparently, I can’t use it in North Carolina, when I get there tomorrow, which I would love to drive in North Carolina. And wouldn’t North Carolina want me to rent a car at Avis or something, and then drive it and like get some gas? But hey, I guess North Carolina is not going to get my money in that way. So I can’t use this, according to my many lawyers, in North Carolina. But this is one of the things that we could get. Now, only 12 states allow us to get this. Texas is home to 1.2 million undocumented Texans, who are working and contributing billions of dollars to the Texan economy. I don’t know. Is there a good subway system in Texas? How do they think undocumented Texans get around? Right?

I mean, that’s why, for me, this is way more than just DACA and DAPA. This is a greater understanding of what it means to be an undocumented person in this country, to survive and to work. And, you know, every day—I have to tell you, just sitting in that courtroom yesterday, surrounded by all these undocumented people, of many different backgrounds—a lot of Mexican, Central American, Korean—sitting there, it was—it was like we can’t undo that. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere. This is our country. And there’s nothing more American for us than to fight for it.

REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: And, Amy, what your audience should understand is that it’s 4 million people that are undocumented. They need to have been here five years or more.


REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: And just so that we understand, half of them have been here 10 years or more. But they need—


REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Thank you, 20 years. But they need to have been here five years or more. Then, at their own expense, they have to go through a rigorous background check. And let me—ask any of the DREAMers how rigorous that background check is. So they submit their fingerprints. They have to show they have committed no crime whatsoever. Then, on top of that, they have to prove all of the five years. And that’s—everybody thinks it’s easy to prove you’ve been here the last five years. No, you’ve got to really look through records, especially when you’re undocumented, submit that, and then guess what you get. You get a work permit. You get a work permit, which allows you to work and pay all your federal taxes and get on the books.

I don’t understand why, if the Republicans understand they’re not going to be deported, why we don’t—would not want to put them on the books, because they do not represent a threat. Then, we can take what the Supreme Court justices said yesterday—hey, by the way, you only get money for 400,000 deportations a year, and there’s 12 million of them. Doesn’t it make sense to prioritize who you’re going to deport? Then you can use those resources to go after gangbangers, drug dealers, murderers, people who are causing real—I like to say that everybody that shows up here is a foreigner, but they don’t all come as immigrants. Immigrants come to work, to sweat and to toil. And there are some foreigners, yes, Amy, we should go after them and cleanse our society of them, so that we all live a freer—in a freer society.

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