Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas

New York, NY

I define American as someone who works hard, who’s proud of this country and wants to contribute, who’s not a burden on anyone.

After being born and reared in the Philippines, my mother wanted to give me a better life. So she sent me to live with my grandparents in Silicon Valley. It was 1993, and I was 12 years old.

I loved America the moment I got here, and embraced the language, the culture and the people. English was my second language, and I learned to speak “American” by watching Frasier, Home Improvement and The Golden Girls.

At 16, I rode my bike to the DMV to get my driver’s permit. I brought my green card with me. The woman at the DMV looked at it, leaned over and whispered, “This is fake. Don’t come back here again.”

I went home and confronted my grandfather. He confirmed it. That was the first time I realized I am an undocumented immigrant — what some people call an “illegal.”

I decided then that people could never doubt that I am an American. Speak English well. Write English well. Contribute to this society. If I worked hard enough, if I achieved enough, I felt I could earn what it means to be an American.

The first person I told was my choir teacher, Mrs. Denny. After learning of her planned choir trip to Japan, I told her I couldn’t afford it. When she replied that we’d figure out a way, I then told her the truth. “I don’t have the right passport,” I said. “I am not supposed to be here.” The next day, she told me the choir was going to Hawaii instead.

Mrs. Denny was the first member of my personal Underground Railroad: Americans who have chosen to help undocumented immigrants like me. Other members include Rich Fischer, my high school superintendent, and Pat Hyland, my high school principal. They found a way to get me to college. For more than a decade, Rich and Pat, among others, have helped guide and support me as I’ve tried to define myself as an American: graduating from college, building a career as a journalist. And after writing hundreds of stories — including covering the 2008 presidential campaign for The Washington Post; profiling Al Gore for Rolling Stone and Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker; writing and producing a documentary on the AIDS epidemic in the nation’s capital; and winning a Pulitzer Prize for helping cover the Virginia Tech massacre — I am taking full responsibility for what I’ve done.

Now, I’m telling my story.

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