MILPITAS, California—In a building that houses Seafood City, an Asian supermarket, and Goldilocks, Max Fried Chicken, Chow King, and Beard Papa, all food outlets catering mostly to Filipino-Americans, Jose Antonio Vargas faced a crowd composed largely of Filipinos along with a smattering of blacks and Latinos. Vargas hit the front pages and became a popular guest on the talk show circuit after he declared that he was in the US illegally.
Vargas was born in the Philippines and was sent by his mother to live with his grandparents in the US when he was just 12 without obtaining authorization for him to live in the country permanently. He did not know about his immigration status until 1997 when he applied for a California driver license and found out that the documents he submitted with his application were fraudulent, documents that had been provided to him by his family.
He kept his immigration status a secret with the help of friends and teachers, using false documents to continue his pursuit of higher education, and to live an un-extraordinary life and fit in as an ordinary citizen would in this, his adopted country. He found employment, and a career — working for such newspapers as the Philadelphia Daily News, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and was part of a team that garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2008.
In June last year, he wrote an essay that was published in The New York Times. In that essay, he declared that he was an undocumented immigrant. (He bristles at the term “illegal alien”, arguing that “there is no such thing as an illegal human being”.) He states that he revealed his undocumented status “to promote dialogue about what he feels is a broken immigration system.”
That afternoon, he was in Milpitas as the guest speaker in a town hall meeting organized by the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations, Region 8, and to promote Vargas’s project called “Define American”, a multi-media campaign aimed at helping illegal aliens or, as Vargas prefers to them and to himself, undocumented immigrants, push for legitimization by challenging traditional definitions of what an American is and changing the conversation about immigration in America.
Among the notable guests at the meeting were Filipino Americans who had risen to high political positions in two Bay Area cities—the Honorable Jose Esteves, mayor of Milpitas, who also presented Vargas a recommendation, and the Honorable Pat Gacoscos, vice mayor of Union City.
Also in audience were students from the University of San Francisco, Napa Valley College up north, and even UC Davies from farther north. The proceedings was moderated by Ben Menor, Santa Clara Chairperson of Region 8 with Lorna Dietz, Chair of Region 8 moderating the media Q & A.