Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas made headlines around the world last month when he revealed in a New York Times Magazine article that he is an undocumented immigrant. The Mountain View-raised Vargas joins us to discuss the public response to his admission, and to talk about his new campaign “to elevate the conversation around immigration.”

He recently founded Define American, a new campaign group.

Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has served as senior contributing editor at the Huffington Post and as a reporter at a number of daily newspapers, including the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle

  • Lee Thé

    It isn’t Mr. Vargas’ fault that he’s here. But it isn’t my fault either. I’ve been in the Philippines, and I know that an educated English-Tagalog bilingual like Mr. Vargas could make a good living in his own country. 

    But even if he couldn’t, it’s still not my fault. His argument rests on the rhetorical fallacy called “special pleading.” The problem isn’t that he would necessarily be a bad citizen. It’s that he wants us to base American immigration policy on the desires of the would-be immigrants rather than on our country’s determining its immigration needs and basing our policy on those needs.. 

    We can’t take in every single person who wants to move here. Roughly half of Mexico’s population say in polls that they want to move here. If we fling open the gates we become India within a few months, with a middle class surrounded by starving peasants. 

    Mr. Vargas needs to return to his country not because of anything to do with Mr. Vargas, but because our immigration policy can’t and shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of people with an appealing narrative.

    People who feel empathy for Mr.Vargas are welcome to do so. But remember that humans have great difficulty thinking beyond the level of individual stories.The problem being that all the people waiting for visas in their own countries aren’t being interviewed on KQED. The people whose lives have been ruined or ended by “undocumented immigrants” aren’t being interviewed on KQED. So our thinking about this gets skewed in favor of those who get air time.

    Mr. Vargas sees everything through the lens of his own needs. That’s fine, but it’s called “American immigration policy,” not “Juan Antonio Vargas immigration policy.”

    All his other arguments–relatives, taxes paid by illegals, arguments over terminology–are all part and parcel of this special pleading.

    Mr. Vargas is a citizen of the Philippines, living here illegally. Deal with it.

    • KQEDmember4life

      Well he s dealing with it and like most Dreamers that know they are Americans, will eventually through governmental means be recognized as such, its inevitable because they will not accept being deported, this is what America as a nation is about. 

      • Steve

        Oh, we’re about flouting the law.  Got it.

  • Maclois

    Years ago, to be allowed to be an alien resident, I had to be sponsored (someone guaranteed to support me for two years, if that was necessary). Why couldn’t your grandparents, as legal Americans, sponsor you?

    • HaJaXavier

      he addressed this on air. Grandparents can’t sponsor grandchildren, only children.

      • Maclois

        Sorry – I missed that bit. But he had so many “sponsors” – I wonder why it seemingly never occurred to any of them to put him up for legal residency, sponsoring him financially for two years. 

        • HaJaXavier

          this is an option, but it takes 20+ years. my aunt and uncle just arrived by being sponsored by my father. they started the legal process over 20 years ago. I completely forgot about it until i got a call asking if i would be a financial sponsor (required when the original sponsor is retired).

          this nuance was discussed, but only in passing.

        • HaJaXavier

          ps…my point is that even with a “sponsor” whether family or employer, it is a huge bureaucratic mess.

  • tusb

    I sympathize with most aspects of Jose’s story, but I am offended by his comment that “I had to lie, because I wanted something [to be a reporter/columnist at big newspapers]”.  Nobody has to lie.  He chose to lie.  It was a calculated decision that, to achieve his goal, lying would be beneficial to him.

    Mr. Vargas: your citizenship status is a victim of the U.S.’ failed immigration policy, and for that you have my sympathy.  But your integrity is your responsibility alone, and I do not accept your attempt to transfer blame for your lying to anyone other than yourself.

  • BeeKind

    When asked “why are you still here”, or similar, i wish the undocumented young would answer something to the effect of “this is my home, the only one i have ever known.   I can’t “go back” to a country i have never known”.   When young people find that the USA is their home, thru no fault of their own, the crime is sending there somewhere that is not   home.

    • Joe

      You can’t hold a child accountable for that sort of thing, but that’s the fault of their parents/other family members, yes?  

      Why is that my issue?  If one’s parents brought you here illegally, they should be held responsible.  Perhaps we deport the parents and the children such that they can stay together.  

      • Kolumbus

        What if it was you Joe? What if you were contacted by ICE and told that your SSN is fake,and guess what you got to go, would you fight it, or lay down and curl up in the fetal position?

         Remember that at one time some more recently than not, we populated this country through any means neccesary.

        • Joe

          I’d be pissed at my parents for not telling me what’s going on, but understanding that it’s not anyone else’s business but my family.  

          It’s emotional, yes, very much so.  But you can’t make decisions which affect millions of people based on emotion for one family/circumstance.  

    • Ben

      From historic perspective: In 1847, there were only 3000! Americans on the territory which is now California. Californians, do not you have feeling you have stolen this land? Or local Native American immigration officials issued the right paperwork for your ancestors? 🙂


    I understand the unfairness of illegal immigrants paying taxes. However, what about the unfairness to millions of visa applicants patiently lining up outside the US to be admitted into this country legally and start working and paying taxes? I have many relatives in that long line. Illegal immigrants cut in line illegally. That is unfair.

  • Joe

    Am I the only one who thinks that granting amnesty to illegal immigrants such as Vargas sets a bad precedent and only encourages more illegal behavior?

    My heart goes out to Vargas and his family, but frankly, his problems are none of my business.  You may be a great guy; a productive member of society, but you’re not legally allowed work here.  

    At what point is Vargas’ personal life my business and where does it stop becoming my business?

    I’d like to see/hear some pro immigration reform arguments demonstrating statistics and logical arguments instead of appealing to emotion.  

    How about all of the people who legally immigrated to this country, filled out the paperwork, and waited for their turn?  I feel like I’m the only one who is offended that so many immigration reform arguments are a big “screw you” to those who did it the correct way, and a big “do it because you’ll get away with it” for those doing it illegally.  

    • KQEDmember4life

      I think that Immigration is not a fair game, they are concerned w/ emotional details and it is not a leveled playing ground. All your points are correct but the thing is that were running a busted machine. We cannot have a police state w/ big brother getting into our business but why do big businesses hire illegal workers? Its not always lower wages b/c their not suppose to do so. I think that this involves something deeper inside politics, something about having a scapegoat to distract us from the economy, jobs, and health care.

    • Ella

      How does granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants say “screw you” to those who did it the correct way? It’s not easy to be an undocumented immigrant. People wouldn’t choose it if they had a good alternative. Admitting that undocumented people are just as human, just as deserving, just as rooted in the U.S. as documented people doesn’t take anything away from people with documents.

  • KQEDmember4life

    I am an undocumented American, and a lot of this discussion is too politicized and filled w/ technicalities. The immigration process is in itself unfair and makes it harder for people of different nationalities to become legal citizens. You know us and you love us because you thought you knew who we were, safely apart from at the local home depot waiting for a job (and we make fun of them too), but one day you woke up, or that is we woke up and we are all illegal immigrants ( I found out at 18). My fam. like many others is mixed citizen and non. like most people who are illegal. Some just happened to get  a visa 200 years ago or so and some haven’t gotten it yet, its probably in the mail. Thank you KQED, and NPR, as a member I am glad that we have a channel where all sides of the truth are told. …please don’t get mad either b/c yes I am now in the process of becoming a legal resident, but in my heart I am first and foremost an American (and proud), an undocumented tax payer, and a indigenous person of North America.

  • TrainedHistorian

    When Vargas got a full scholarship to SF State including paid lodging I applied to the same college to get a teaching credential–I was a single mom, 2 kids, earning about $9000/year. But there wasn’t enough financial aid for me to do it (would have had to go into debt for the schooling & there was no way to pay rent simultaneously) so I continued with my job (legally capped at part-time) but also I needed MediCal & other taxpayer-supports for myself & kids to survive. Scholarships, internships, jobs with prestigious journals, these are extremely limited goods. At these points, Vargas displaced Americans many of whom were just as needy, if not more so. Even jobs that pay enough to live are a very limited good for many Americans, and the lack of such necessetiates a taxpayer subsized safety net, (unless the poor are just left to die of exposure, etc..) Unlimited immigration severely depresses wages and salaries, and drives up rental costs. We cannot have a safety net, a large middle class and unlimited immigration. We could have a limited amount of immigration, a middle class of some size and a safety net, but then we actually need to enforce immigration laws, not let everyone, including Vargas, flout them.

    • Chrisco

      OK, so he shouldn’t have gotten the scholarship (and that would not have helped you anyway). But if you want to be like that, then the question becomes, why should I pay taxes to support your lifestyle of having 2 kids as a single mom and pursuing higher education?

      • Joe

        Agreed.  Having two children that you can’t support isn’t just a bad hand that you’re dealt.  She picked those cards and played that hand.  

        Is nobody embarrassed to be taking public assistance, or is the culture entirely about doing as little as possible and getting as much as possible handed to you?

        • TrainedHistorian

          I had a child with a man who became neglectful and abusive.  Should I have stayed in that relationship with the kid too?
          Staying in abusive relationships also has social & taxpapyer costs. Giving the child up to foster care would have been far, far more costly than raising the child, in conjunction with his father himself. So would have havning no contact with my own kid. The father refused to provide child support and could get away with it because as self-employed  he claimed to earn very little money and there was no way to disprove it. Ending up abandoned, or in an abusive relationship happens to many Americans who already had children, often women. People who had children then with a well-paying job, often lose a good job, and need support until they get another decent job. Such folks do often need some sort of training/higher education or credential in order to get a job that allows us to work WITHOUT needing additional supports like MediCal. And low-income Americans are cheated when financial aid is not available because states decide to subsidize in-state tuition and work-study slots for illegals instead. Americans desperate for an extremely scarce internship are cheated when those ones intended for citizens are given to illegals. Taxpayers are cheated when newspapers lay off Americans while retaining illegal immigrant journalists.  BTW, it seems that if I had lied about my parents not going to college, I might have qualified for the scholarship Vargas mentions. Should everyone lie about whether their parents went to college, or their legal status, or their degrees (or lack of them) etc. so they can get any scholarship, internship or job that they want?

        • Mizzz

          What are you achieving with this blame game? I disagree with Historian–I don’t think that any true historian can see immigrants’ rights issues the way she does–but seriously, saying that a person who has kids shouldn’t be able to get an education is just as idiotic as saying the same of an undocumented person. Who are we serving when we deny a capable person an education?

          Re: public assistance. I just got my law degree thanks to federal student loans. That’s public assistance. Oh, and I went to a public law school. Public assistance. Joe, I would be SHOCKED if you hadn’t taken some form of public assistance in your life. No one should be ashamed to seek the help she needs to get through a rough patch or to launch a better future for herself and her family.

      • TrainedHistorian

        I did NOT have 2 kids as a single mom. The father’s abusive, neglectful behavior became intolerable after having kids. Since he was self-employed he lied about his income and provided no child support. The only job I could get was capped at part time, and did not pay enough to cover medical.  And many Americans are in similar situations. They had children with someone who becomes abusive, or neglectful, or addictive. Should they stay in the relationships? This has taxpayer and social costs too. Also many Americans had kids when they had an adequate job, and THEN lose their  job and then they do need often need higher education or a credential or  training in order to get a job that will allow them to live WITHOUT MediCal or other supports. Applying for a teaching credential @ SFState was exactly done so I could get OFF MediCal.It isn’t right for you to portray those who need financial aid to qualify for a modest, practical job like public school teaching (more practical than journalism in “old media” these days) in order to  get OFF of MediCal & other supports as expecting taxpayers to support a “lifestyle of having 2 kids as a single mom and pursuing higher education.”

    • guest

      You and Vargas are very similar b/c you both got a bad deal w/out it being your fault. If an American wants to give his money to an undocumented American that’s his business. The poor should not rally against other disadvantaged groups. You can always win your argument but we are in this together and its more than a conversation.  Illegals don’t all work for small pay, some are very picky only work for 10-12 dollars an hour, much more than many citizens, remember that you dont know whos who.

  • Mizzz

    Michael Krasny suffers from OWGS (Old White Guy Syndrome). He is simply out of touch with immigrants (legal and otherwise), young people, and communities of color (who, by the way, are part of the “public” NPR is supposed to serve). I have heard many of his shows on immigration, and he is openly hostile to undocumented people, which is not the prevailing attitude in my generation, especially among those of us who grew up in mixed-immigration-status communities. We do not see undocumented people as only “taking” resources–we see them giving back, too, just like all other Americans. Their immigration status is just not that important to us except insofar as it keeps them from fully realizing their own potential and giving back even more.

    Similarly, yesterday Krasny made the absurd suggestion that there is peer pressure or some other cultural force among low-income and minority parents discouraging an emphasis on their children’s academic achievement. As I said, I grew up in such a community, and have lived and worked in communities inner city neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, Philly, and San Francisco–and I have never, ever seen such a thing. It is incredibly paternalistic and yes, racist, to think that minority/low-income parents are somehow too dumb or culturally different to care about their children’s academic success. And they wonder why brown people don’t listen to NPR! Would YOU listen to a station that made such unfounded, asinine characterizations of your friends and family?

    Krasny needs to balance out his OWG media diet (great, another novel about white people) with media by and for people of color (see, e.g., and get some actual experiences in the communities that he is also supposed to be serving with his radio show.

    • Ella

      I agree. I was shocked that Krasny ended the program with “But you did take away another person’s spot” in reference to Vargas’s successful applications in life–his scholarship, his job. Vargas did not take anyone else’s “spot.” He competed and won. If Vargas took someone’s spot, Michael Krasny did, too–someone else could have his job. Immigration status has nothing to do with it. I was offended.

      • Venus

        of course he took someone’s spot.  if i, as a man, falsely apply for a scholarship only available to women, and win, i have effectively stolen that scholarship from a member of its intended audience.  i’m not saying Mr. Vargas’ story isn’t compelling, i’m not even saying he doesn’t deserve citizenship, but i think people need to be honest in this discussion.  He competed in arena’s in which he technically (and legally) should not have been allowed to compete.  And therefore yes, he did “take” someone’s spot.

        • Mizzz

          But he didn’t “falsely apply”–the scholarship he got didn’t inquire about immigration status–because they, like Ella & I, think that immigration status is irrelevant, especially when immigration status is determined by totally irrational laws.

          Ella makes a good point: Vargas didn’t “take” anyone else’s place any more than Krasny or you or I did. Each of us has made our own place in the world based on the talents we have and privileges or disadvantages we’re born into. (And in fact there’s an argument that those who have more privileges at the outset “took” the rightful opportunities of other more talented people who just didn’t have the same chances in life.) Sure, you may have a particular legal status, but did you do anything to merit that status? No. You know what a system is called that designates a certain class of people to remain perpetually without rights? A caste system. America has recently discovered that attaching an inferior legal status to a person based on her race or gender is unjust, and eventually we will see the light that doing the same based on a person’s place of birth is also unjust.

          Here’s where you say: why doesn’t he go back to the Philippines? Here’s why: for the same reason you don’t just up and move to, say, India. All your family and friends are here. Your work is here. You are culturally American. Everything that gives your life meaning is here, not there. It would be a HUGE upheaval for you to move to India and be barred from ever coming back here. And maybe you don’t care (frankly, I think it’s pretty cruel if you are willing to impose that on someone). But even if you are coldhearted enough to make Vargas walk that plank, you SHOULD care that there are some 8 million people here like him who are so scared of losing everything that they will endure abuse, exploitation, and even serious crimes without going to the police. Allowing that to take place is bad for EVERYONE in society.

          Krasny’s (and other anti-immigrant people’s) attitude of “deport em all” is so incredibly deluded, it blows my mind. PLEASE, educate yourselves about this issue! Understand that in a globalized world, human migration is not going to stop any time soon. Recognize that the laws we have on the books are far out of touch with that reality. Acknowledge the human cost of enforcing that regime–especially the families torn apart. And know that being undocumented is NOT a crime (it’s a civil violation–no more morally culpable than a parking ticket). For someone as hugely privileged as Krasny, there is simply no excuse for failing to educate himself on such an important issue and for using public media to encourage hatred and intolerance.

          • Ellaasnowflake

            Nicely said, Mizzz.

          • Ben

            The word “krasny” means “handsome, beautiful” in some Eastern European languages. Many people from that part of Europe immigrated to the US in the pass solely for ECONOMIC reasons. It is the same story.

        • Ben

          So you would accept Mr.Vargas employed as landscaper or farm worker, because obviously Americans are not competing for those jobs. He should stay typical illegal immigrant and do not try to do his best and then you would not have any problem with him. There is a lot of hypocrisy in dealing with this problem. How many Americans work on the fields of Central valley? If you want all illegals to leave, be prepared to go back to these kind of jobs. Repeating – hypocrisy.

      • Steve

        Unless there were more scholarships than applicants (unlikely), Vargas took someone’s spot.

      • Cristina

        I totally agree with you. I came to the site to make the exact same comments . I was completely offended by Krasny’s last comments and will take a break from listening to his show for some time. Taking the last word for his own biased remarks was extremely rude.  I’m glad I was not the only one who noticed.

  • Gatti Cristina


    I see the fact as twofold: on one hand, among illegal immigrants there are excellent “Americans”, who endorse and live according to the core value of this great nation; on the other hand, among legal citizens there are a lot of  unfamous “Americans” that do not even know the basics of the constitution, do not pay taxes and brake the law continuously.  Thus, as the goodness of a tree is seen by the fruits, “Americans” and “not Americans” should be judged and allowed to be according how well they acted upon being a citizen. I propose that whoever is found not worthy to be called “American” will be rejected (and a naturally born american stripped by his/her citizenship), and that whoever is worthy to be called “American” will be taken (and illegal immigrants given asylum) above and beyond the issue of illegal/legal immigration.  Why would you send away an “illegal” Pulitzer Price winner and keep some unknown greedy who take advante of the system just because he/she is a “citizen”? 

    • Joe

      I think stripping people of their citizenship for not being “American” enough is a dangerous idea.  What happens when the definition of what an “American” is changes out of your favor?  

      I think we learned in the 40’s that Fascism is a bad idea.

  • Your country either has sovereign borders or it does not. Americans need to make up their minds. Perhaps the USA will be the first country to totally abolish its borders, setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. Annother “American Revolutionary Idea” ? ? ? Is this a smart idea? ? ?

  • me

    Thank you KQED listeners, I have never read commentaries online that although difficult to agree with at times were actually civilized and respectful.

  • Ella

    I’m surprised at how heartless a lot of these comments are. Quite a few people seem to believe that it’s not “their problem” that Vargas is here,  that Vargas acted in a way that he shouldn’t have by keeping his immigration status a secret until now, and that he somehow “stole” things from them by being successful in life.

    I’d wager a lot of money that if most people in the world faced Vargas’s exact circumstances–being brought to the U.S. at a young age, being raised as an American, becoming a part of the fabric of the nation–they wouldn’t run to the nearest immigration officer and request to be sent back to a “home” they barely remember. I know I wouldn’t.

    Vargas hasn’t taken anything from anyone–he deserves what he’s achieved. A piece of paper shouldn’t change that. And he’s not alone–many undocumented immigrants deserve to be treated equally as human beings and Americans.

    • Venus

      re.  your last sentence… “many undocumented immigrants deserve to be treated … as … Americans”

      what, then, does it mean to be American? 

      the fact is, for better or worse, that the world IS made up of political divisions.  that people are born into political communities, and are bestowed with certain rights as a result.  it simply doesn’t make sense to say that every person on the globe should instantly be afforded the same rights as every American, including the right to emmigrate here illegally or without review.

      yes, we are a country of immigrants.  yes, we desperately need immigration reform.  yes, there are more and less intelligent ways to change the situation. 

      i agree entirely that most people in Vargas’ shoes would do what he did (rather, most would likely NEVER come out, so to speak).  most people, upon finding a $100 bill on the street, would also likely simply pick it up and pocket it without trying to find its owner.  point being- just because the majority shares a similar persuasion, doesn’t make it right, or just. 

      what is the right thing to do in this case?
      what is the just thing to do in this case?

  • Steve
  • A sympathetic gal

    The immigration system in this country is old and broken.  There are recent events where homeland security (formerly INS) had created sting operations that rounded up scores of undocumented workers employed at American businesses and immediately those businesses shut down.  Subsequently the towns and small cities where the businesses resided experienced an economic catastrophe because the businesses that supported the town was not operating until the whole thing had been sorted out.  This is a great example of American business needing to stay viable by using workers who will work for the lowest possible wages.  Those people are people like Mr. Vargas.  

    The interesting thing is that Mr. Vargas achieved success at the very highest levels this country can offer as a college graduate and as a Pulitzer prize winning journalist.  There are many more like him that live and work in fear in this country and who are the victims of an old, broken and inflexible immigration policy. Imagine if the original Bush plan for immigration reform had succeeded and new guidelines would allow persons like Mr. Vargas a proper path to citizenship.  American businesses would be happy and thriving because work would not stop due to lack of qualified (low paid) workers, the American justice system would not be backlogged with residency cases; money used for the border patrol policy in Mexico would be better spent on other things…the list goes on.  

    There is also the sad undercurrent of bigotry in the current laws that really seeks to keep out ready and willing workers to come into this country because they are not, let’s just say ‘one of us’.  I wonder why persons like Mr. Vargas (who is from the Philippines) and others who have Spanish surnames have a harder time coming into and working in this country than say, the folks from Canada or Western Europe?  

    I think that Republicans seem to be influenced by forces outside of their own community to keep these people out for reasons that have nothing to do with economics or homeland security.  And these are the ones that ultimately scuttled the original Bush proposal and subsequent others. 

    Article on defeat of Bush immigration reform bill:

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