“When we talk about immigration, we’re talking about why our country looks the way it does,” Jose Antonio Vargas said, specifically applauding the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for their efforts. “I would think and I would hope and I would pray that the LGBT community should be at the center of that conversation.”
Vargas, who publicly disclosed his immigration status for the first time in an essay he wrote for the New York Times Magazine in June 2011, spoke with the Blade the day after the National Council of La Raza honored him along with California Attorney General Kamala Harris, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and United We Dream at their annual awards ceremony at the National Building Museum in D.C.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has repeatedly said his decision to come out as gay in 1999 while in high school in Mountain View, Calif., was less difficult than disclosing his immigration status, although his grandfather kicked him out of the house. Vargas, whose mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents outside San Francisco when he was 12, reiterated this point during a Center for American Progress forum on undocumented LGBT immigrants on Friday.
“I ruined the plan,” he said as he discussed his grandfather’s reaction to his decision to come out as gay. “The plan was to come to America, marry a woman and get my papers that way.”
Vargas has remained among the most high profile undocumented immigrants since disclosing his status.
He founded Define American, an organization that advocates on behalf of undocumented immigrants seeking citizenship, in 2011. Vargas last month testified in support of comprehensive immigration reform before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“It was definitely very stressful,” Vargas told the Blade as he recalled his testimony. His grandmother who once asked him whether he had to talk about his sexual orientation when he discussed his immigration status sat a few feet behind him during the hearing. “I’m only one person and it’s only one story, but there was an obligation to try to speak to the collective universal experience as much as possible.”
His advocacy on behalf of undocumented immigrants has not come without controversy.
He faced criticism for lying to his editors at the Post and other publications for which he worked about his status.
“Of course there’s criticism because I lied — I lied to my colleagues, I lied to my employers,” Vargas told the Blade immediately after the Center for American Progress forum during which he spoke. “I have no control over peoples’ judgment. All I ask for I guess is empathy.”
He responded further.
“It was either lie or don’t work,” Vargas said. “I wanted to work. I wanted to pay taxes. I wanted to contribute to my home. So that’s what I had to do.”
A Williams Institute report released during the Center for American Progress forum notes at least 267,000 of the more than 900,000 foreign-born LGBT adults currently living in the United States are undocumented.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said during the same Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at which Vargas testified the Uniting American Families Act that would allow gays and lesbians to sponsor their foreign-born partners for immigration purposes would not increase the risk of fraud among those seeking to enter the country. She wrote to Congress last fall that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would instruct personnel to consider “long-term, same-sex partners” as families while weighing the potential deportations of undocumented immigrants.
Napolitano told the Blade late last month the Defense of Marriage Act prevents the White House from placing a hold on marriage-based green card applications for bi-national same-sex couples in response to requests from New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and others.
Vargas said he remains hopeful about the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform.
“I’m optimistic about it because frankly everybody realizes and acknowledges the urgency,” he said. “We’re talking about a legacy issue for the White House as well and doing what’s right.”
Vargas once again sought to personalize the issue during the Center for American Progress forum as he discussed a man with whom he recently spoke after a panel at Elmhurst College outside Chicago. He said the man told him “he would like to give him papers,” but appeared to have an issue with his sexual orientation.
“I am not going back in the closet for anybody,” Vargas said. “The country will only get gayer, it will only get browner, it will only get more Asian. This is the inevitability. In 21st century American politics diversity is destiny. Ignore it at your peril.”