In Memoir, Jose Antonio Vargas Shares His Life As An 'Undocumented Citizen'

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"Dear America," by Jose Antonio Vargas. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)
"Dear America," by Jose Antonio Vargas. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas made headlines when he outed himself as undocumented. His new memoir is "Dear America."


Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, and filmmaker. Founder and CEO of Define American, a nonprofit media and culture organization that focuses on immigration, identity and citizenship. Author of "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen." (@joseiswriting)

Interview Highlights

On immigration policy and the reasons people come to the U.S.

"Of course a country has a right to determine who comes in and who doesn't. Of course a country has a right to say 'these are our borders.' But at the same time, a country has to figure out why people are coming here to begin with. Even the whole concept of ... this question of trying to figure out the root causes of migration and why people come, to me, is one of the most under-explained. We don't talk about that. What has the impact of NAFTA been to the Mexican economy? Why is it that Mexicans felt the need to cross whatever border they had to cross just to feed their kids?"

On the toll of life as an undocumented immigrant 

"I wanted to write a manifesto about global migration. The book is dedicated to 253 million migrants in the world. And to my mother. I wanted to understand my own psychology. I wanted to understand what the cost has been of all of the lying and passing and hiding. I didn't realize that I had spent 14 years of my life, from 16 to the age of 30, hiding from the government. I didn't realize what that actually meant — that I was actually hiding from myself, from the relationship I was having with people. It was really hard for me, and it's still really hard for me to kind of let people into my space. I'm so used to kind of like, 'This is my thing, I don't have to tell you anything, I don't have to answer things about why I'm here.' I came into an industry that, I ask the questions. I don't answer them. So this book is an answer to that. It's trying to understand the mental health crisis that we're all living through. And that was my goal in really writing the book, to get people to understand what the toll of this is. ... So, in a way, as I write in this book, this book is the closest thing I have to feeling like I'm free in a country in which I'm not."

From The Reading List

Excerpt from "Dear America" by Jose Antonio Vargas

Excerpted from DEAR AMERICA by Jose Antonio Vargas. Copyright © 2018 by Jose Antonio Vargas. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

New York Times: "Opinion: What America Looks Like From a Jail in South Texas" — "Of all the ways I imagined the inevitable — being arrested, getting detained — I never envisioned sitting on the cold cement floor of a jail cell in South Texas surrounded by children.

"It was July 2014. The cell, as I remember it, was no bigger than 20 by 30 feet. All around me were about 25 boys, as young as 5, the oldest no more than 12. The air reeked. A boy across the room from me was crying inconsolably, his head buried in his chest. Most of the boys wore dazed expressions. It was clear they had no idea where they were or why they were there.

"The only source of entertainment came from Mylar blankets, flimsy metallic sheets that were supposed to keep us warm. Three boys played with a blanket as if it were a toy, crunching it up into a ball, passing it back and forth."

NPR: "'Dear America,' Writes A Pulitzer-Winning Journalist — And Undocumented Immigrant" — "Jose Antonio Vargas is an activist, journalist and filmmaker. In 2008, he was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.

"But the kind of recognition that would make most journalists proud worried Vargas. It could lead to revealing a secret at the heart of his life — a secret that he himself didn't discover until he was 16.

"Vargas revealed his story in The New York Times Magazine in 2011, and has now written a book called 'Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.' It's a memoir of his time in the U.S. — but also of the people who assisted him along the way.

"'To me, that's the story,' Vargas says in an interview. 'As much as we talk about immigration, and specifically illegal immigration, we rarely discuss that the reality is: There are countless Americans of all different backgrounds out there who help people like me every day. And for me, part of writing this book was to kind of really document that.'"

This article was originally published on September 18, 2018.

This program aired on September 18, 2018.



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