It’s 4:40 p.m. on a spring Monday in New York City and Jose Antonio Vargas is energized. Armed with a Venti Starbucks iced coffee and a laptop suited for travel, Vargas quickly dives into a recap of a recently concluded cross-country tour. Over the course of 30 days, the tour hit 15 states, and despite the grueling travel schedule, Vargas shows no hints of slowing down.
These days, Vargas is in the midst of a campaign, called Define American, aiming to change the way Americans talk about immigration. The effort began in earnest in June 2011 after he publicly revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant in the the New York Times Magazine. “I’m done running,” he wrote at the time. “I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.”
Coming from Vargas, an accomplished journalist and part of a Pulitzer-winning team at the Washington Post, the revelation was stunning, but it was just the start. As a journalist — especially one who has reported on the intersection of social media and politics — Vargas set out to help other undocumented immigrants use the democratized tools of online publishing to tell their own stories and push them out to the world. The hope, according to Vargas, is to change the national narrative by utilizing these tools.
Vargas has also taken the fight to some of the most prominent newsrooms in America, urging the New York Times, Associated Press and others to rethink their use of the term “illegal immigrant.” And he is set to premier a documentary about his story on June 21 at the American Film Institute’s Docs festival, where it will be the centerpiece film.
Still, it’s fair to wonder how much a media campaign can influence the legal standing of undocumented immigrants at a time when Congress seems unmoved by public opinion. To find out, we sat down with Vargas and started asking questions. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Do you think social media can impact the legislative outcome of immigration reform?
Jose Antonio Vargas: I think it already has. All of the Dreamers, the undocumented young people who have been coming out since ‘06 and ‘07, they basically changed the narrative on immigration. The fact that you have Republicans like (Rep. Bob) Goodlatte, for example, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, a Republican from Virginia, even Goodlatte is for the Dream Act. Paul Ryan is for the Dream Act. A lot of these Republicans who opposed the Dream Act in 2010 are now for it. I think that has to do with the fact that young people are coming out and telling their own stories. This whole movement would be very different if it wasn’t for social media.
How would it be different?
Vargas: I don’t think it would have coalesced and organized and mobilized as quickly.
But how much of this can be ascribed to social media as opposed to voting totals in the 2012 election?
Vargas: This was happening way before the 2012 election, even before the 2010 election. During the 2010 midterms, independent of the politics, people were using social media to tell their own stories to challenge the whole narrative around this issue. Independent of politics, the changing narrative on immigration is directly correlated to the fact that we have new technologies that are allowing people to talk to each other and tell their own stories and organize themselves.
After seeing gun legislation fail despite 90 percent of Americans supporting expanded background checks though, how can you be sure that digital campaigns, or changing the narrative through social media, can impact legislation?
Vargas: We’re talking about two very different issues here. You’re talking about people who are talked about like we’re illegal people that don’t even exist. Gun control is an issue; immigration is people. Those are two very different things.
I don’t want to get into this Evgeny Morozov thing about whether social media is bad or good. To me, it’s just that social media is allowing people to be in charge of their own narratives, and I think that in and of itself, as somebody who has been covering this since 2007, is liberating — especially considering how so much of the mainstream media doesn’t represent the diversity of people in this country. And so that’s independent of policy and politics. That’s just narrative, and you can’t undermine the power of that.
How important is legislation as an end goal? Are the social media campaigns aimed at passing immigration reform? Do the two have to be linked?
Vargas: The two are linked. One of the goals is to pass immigration reform — of course the devil is going to be in the details in terms of what that’s going to be — but independent of that, the end goal is also to be seen differently. Just because we pass immigration reform doesn’t mean that we treat people differently. It doesn’t mean we’re going to welcome people in this country, right? I’m saying this as someone who has been traveling around the country listening to people refer to people like me as ‘illegal Mexicans.’ People literally use the term interchangeably, ‘illegal Mexicans.’
First of all, I’m Filipino. Second, not all undocumented people are Mexican. And, there’s nothing wrong with being Mexican. So, there’s culture and there’s politics, and I think in some ways, in our country, cultural change has always preceded political change. Ellen DeGeneres came out long before same-sex marriage and Jason Collins. And all that has changed. I would argue that for the immigrant rights movement, technology and culture and art to me as somebody who, as a writer and a filmmaker, I find those things to be really important and really at the center of not only how we move the needle legislatively, but how we change the narrative culturally.
So part of this is about changing the way undocumented immigrants are perceived…
Vargas: Are looked at and talked about, yeah.
Is it possible that is almost as valuable as having a path to citizenship?
Vargas: Look, I don’t have a driver’s license. So, I can tell you that not a day goes by that I don’t think about not having a driver’s license because I really want to drive when I’m traveling and I really want a passport. Those are of course important things, but it doesn’t have to be either or. These are not mutually exclusive things.
One of the things I had to learn early on when I publicly disclosed my status two years ago is that everybody has their own lane. I’m not a politician. I’m not a policy wonk. I was a political reporter, but that’s not really what turns me on. What turns me on is how people perceive the issue and how people see people like me. This is what is driving my work as a journalist too in the past decade. There’s a great James Baldwin quote about how the world changes according to the way people see it and, if you change even by a millimeter the way people see reality, then you can change it. I wholeheartedly believe in that.
You’ve tried, with some success to get publications such as the New York Times and the AP to move away from the term “illegal immigrant”…
Vargas: Well, I think we’ve been more than successful. I don’t think it’s been little success. I think the success has been pretty big.
So how does that change things?
Vargas: People ask me all the time why I came out. There are many reasons, but one of them was I wanted to send a signal to my colleagues. I grew up in newsrooms. I’ve been in newsrooms since I was 17 years old. Journalism has been like my church; it’s been like my identity. It meant a lot to me to be able to ask my fellow journalists to think about this issue in deeper, more complex ways and, to me, getting away from calling people illegal actually opens up a much larger conversation about this issue.
The fact that you don’t have to call people illegal immigrants or illegals or illegal aliens, forces people to ask deeper questions and give more context: Did the person overstay their visa? When did they get here? And why? Why? Did they cross the border? With whom? Was the person who crossed the border 12 when they crossed the border? Were they six? Doesn’t that change things? Right? Why did the parents move here? To me, these are questions that we don’t really explore when it comes to immigration. We don’t really ask a lot of the why or the how.
Again, we always frame the immigration conversation from the perspective of the politicians, never from the perspective of the people, and I think that’s why this is an important fight…The AP Stylebook was like my bible my whole life, it was the first thing I was given, that and Strunk and White, the book on concise writing. So for the AP to make that decision, it’s only inevitable that the New York Times and Washington Post and the L.A. Times and all the other news organizations follow suit.
Take me inside those discussions. Did you find the people on the inside of those news organizations receptive?
Vargas: Yeah, I do. I know how newsrooms work. I know the hierarchy of newsrooms so I have to be careful. The last thing reporters and editors want to be told is what to do and how to write. They don’t want to be some politically correct, Orwellian, kind of like “you’re telling me how to write about…?” I’m incredibly sensitive to that, so I’m very much aware of how newsrooms perceive this, so I just try to give them as much facts as possible and give them as much context as possible.
When I came out in the New York Times, it was a 4,000-word essay. Not once in the essay did I refer to myself as illegal. So, my question is: What if every undocumented person had the opportunity to tell their own stories? I don’t think anyone would call themselves illegal. So, again, it’s about who is telling whose story. Who is framing whose narrative. In some ways, that’s a bigger question than immigration. That’s the large question facing all of us journalists, especially considering how not diverse our newsrooms are.
Are you seeing some of the content generated by advocates being integrated into mainstream reporting?
Vargas: I think a lot of reporters who work on immigration now know who the immigrant advocates and the Dreamers are, for example, because they’re all over the Internet. It’s easy to contact people on Facebook or follow somebody on Twitter or follow who they are. In the past couple of years especially, I think the mainstream media, immigration reporters have done a much better job reflecting what’s happening on the ground — for immigration advocates and activists. I push back a lot on the word advocate because I feel like, what the hell do you think I’m advocating for? Because then people are like “journalist turned immigration advocate.” And I’m just trying to be a human being. I don’t know what you think I’m advocating for, but alright.
I understand where you’re coming from, but what you’re doing is a form of advocacy…
Vargas: Yeah, I suppose. Yeah. But it’s about whose perspective. To you, I’m an advocate. To me, I’m just trying to be seen as a full human being. It depends whose lens you’re looking at it from.
I think you can view it as an advocate through both lenses. If you’re trying to get from point A to point B, however poor point A might be, there’s advocacy that makes it to point B.
Vargas: Someone can argue that we’re all advocating for our own world view. The way you shape this story is your advocacy of what I’m trying to say or where this issue is.
Well, this will be a Q&A.
Vargas: All right, that’s actually better. That’s good. I like Q&A’s better than articles sometimes because I feel like I’d rather hear somebody actually talk or wrestle with… You can see the way I talk; I qualify a lot. A friend said to me I’m like a walking New Yorker article. It’s true! That’s how I write. That’s how I think.
It’s also another way to act outside a filter.
Vargas: Yeah. That’s true. Yeah.
But I did still want to ask about the advocate part. It is sort of a unique position to inhabit as a journalist and an advocate and a filmmaker. So, what’s that like? Do you find yourself to be more of one as opposed to the other?
Vargas: One of the things I had to really wrap my head around is I have no control over what people call me: advocate, activist, gay, Filipino, undocumented person, gay person with an Asian face and Latino name. I have no control over what people call me. The only thing I have control over is my work, and that’s really all I can be judged on. For example, when people call me illegal, calling me illegal says more about you than it does about me.
Journalism is shifting; instead of reporters being encouraged to write straight news, they are being encouraged to write with more personality…
Vargas: In this business now, in journalism, yes, you work for an institution. Maybe PBS or the New York Times, or the Washington Post or CNN, but you also have to be your own institution. You have to have your own set of standards. As far as I know, whenever I use ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘my,’ I have to earn it. It can’t just be some narcissistic, self-serving… and that’s what I worry about this new generation — is it really going to be me, me, me, me, me? What do you stand for? You have to stand for something bigger than yourself. I feel like somebody just gave me the biggest story of my life, and I happened to be a part of it.
Images courtesy of Jose Antonio Vargas via his Facebook page.
Alex Kantrowitz covers the digital marketing side of politics for Forbes.com and PBS MediaShift. His writing has previously appeared in Fortune and The New York Times’ Local Blog. Follow Alex on Twitter at @Kantrowitz.