052 | Jose Antonio Vargas | Telling the full, messy story of immigration

"The dehumanization of migrants happens because we haven't heard stories that insist on complexity and nuance"

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

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A decade ago, journalist and "American without papers" Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a national magazine. Today he works with Hollywood and TV studios to humanise the immigrant story through pop culture.

In this episode

📺 Trafficking in empathy and the power of story to change minds
😢 Why he regrets his mom sending him away to the US
🇺🇸 Reaching America's "moveable middle"
💸 How the economic argument for immigration backfired
😰 Why progressives abandoned the fight
📖 Stories as the last place for nuance and complexity

Show notes

[00:00:16] Intro
[00:02:27] "Home is where I can do my work"
[00:04:05] "Being a journalist is the identity I figured out before all others"
[00:05:22] "All definitions are suspect"
[00:07:28] "Why is it that only a certain portion of the population gets to be an activist?"
[00:09:52] "Legalizing pot is a higher priority than legalizing people"
[00:10:33] "Imprisoned by the language we use on immigrants"
[00:14:09] "We can call immigrants essential labor, but we don't think of them as essential people"
[00:16:16] "Storytelling is trafficking in empathy"
[00:18:09] "The only time many white Americans meet a person of color or an immigrant is through the media they consume"
[00:24:51] "We work on shows that reach the movable middle"
[00:28:23] "We have yet to find some sort of language that talks about how borderless business and money is and how people are still very much, you know, locked up by these borders"
[00:32:55] "If I had a say in the matter as a 12 year old, I would have told my mom, don't do that"
[00:35:39] "That's the power of story"
[00:37:51] "Narrative is not a slice of the pie. It's actually the pan."
[00:39:39] "Storytelling is the only place where nuance can happen"
[00:42:38] "White is not a country"
[00:49:05] "I traded a life of being in the closet as undocumented in limbo to being a public undocumented person whose life is still in limbo"
[00:52:46] Outro

Works referenced

🇺🇸 Define American, a culture change organization that uses the power of narrative to humanize conversations about immigrants.
📚 Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, a memoir by Jose Antonio Vargas (2018, Harper Collins). Upcoming: White is Not a Country (2023, Pantheon Books)
🎬 Documented: A film by an undocumented American, a documentary film by Jose Antonio Vargas (2014, CNN)
🎭 What the Constitution Means to Me, a play by Heidi Schreck (producer)

📚 Beloved, Toni Morrison
📺 Superstore (NBC)
📺 Roswell, New Mexico (CW)
🎬 The Lost Daughter (Netflix)
🎬 Drive my Car


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

[00:00:00] Jose Antonio Vargas: Right now we're creating policies that in many ways exist in a moral vacuum. And sometimes I think the dehumanisation of migrants happens because we haven't heard stories that insist on complexity and nuance.

[00:00:16] Intro

[00:00:16] Isabelle Roughol: Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:19] Yes, this is Borderline. Apologies for a quiet feed. I went to Italy and I brought back COVID as a souvenir. I avoided it for two years and I'm glad I did. It's quite unpleasant, even when you're triple jabbed and you should be triple jabbed. So sorry if I sound like I just ran a marathon, I really haven't. I just walked in from the other room. So we're going to keep this intro short and sweet, though you know me, it's unlikely.

[00:00:45] Before COVID luckily, I chatted with someone who's been on my podcast wishlist for a long time. That's American journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas. I first met Jose nearly a decade ago. At the time he had just done one of the bravest things I've seen a journalist do. In an essay for The New York Times Sunday magazine, Jose outed himself as an undocumented immigrant.

[00:01:08] Jose Antonio Vargas was born in the Philippines and when he was 12 years old, his mom put him on a plane to the United States to live with his grandparents, who were legal residents there. And only years later, when he attempted to get a driver's license, did Jose realize that he was living in the country without permission, without the right papers.

[00:01:27] After he chose to write his story. Jose became a public face and a public voice --and a thoughtful, compassionate, and fascinating one at that-- for unauthorized immigrants in the United States. He's done documentaries, written a book, crisscrossed the country, which he can neither leave nor stay in, and, uh, started an organization called Define American. Now some of the most interesting work, to me least, that Define American does is to try to humanize immigrant story by working with people in TV and movies, to tell more realistic, more complete stories of immigrants and of immigration. Now humanizing the immigration story, I hope that's something of a mission that we share.

[00:02:07] So we talked about all of that and more. There's a slightly longer uncut version of our conversation on the YouTube channel, but the jist really is here on the podcast. Here is my conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas.

[00:02:27] "Home is where I can do my work"

[00:02:27] Isabelle Roughol: I have a question that I often start with, and I'm quite curious to hear your take on it, which is what or where is home for you?

[00:02:39] Um, Well, I mean, I think that's probably going to be the work of my life is to try to answer that question for myself and for other people. But I think me directly, I think it's really evolved. Um, And I would say right now home is where I can do my work. Uh, I'm starting to realize that, like, I, you know, like there's a way of working when you're in your twenties and thirties. Um, but now, I'm 41 and I think the way I work is still not... I need to um, figure out for myself what the balance is between working and living and how like I can work so I can live. Right like, I'm the kind of person that when I have a project in front of me, it's kind of all consuming, you know?Um, And I'm totally consumed by this book that I'm writing. And so home is where I can do that work. And it doesn't matter if it's at the airport terminal, or at a coffee shop somewhere, or a hotel room. It's where I feel like the most productive and the most engaged.

[00:03:56] Isabelle Roughol: It's a very, um, journalist answer. I think a certain professional

[00:04:03] Jose Antonio Vargas: Yeah. I mean

[00:04:03] Isabelle Roughol: type, I think.

[00:04:05] "Being a journalist is the identity I figured out before all others"

[00:04:05] Jose Antonio Vargas: But you know, but my work has always been, yeah. I mean, journalism is kind of my, my background, but I think it's interesting. Like I think being a journalist has been such a... I think it's probably one of my identities. And it's probably the identity that I figured out and most comfortably own before all the other ones. I don't know what, you know, being Filipino means, um, or being gay or being undocumented or being American. I think being a journalist was always a way to like question myself and question what those things really mean.

[00:04:42] And then how do I... I just found this, you know, I'm kind of a walking Toni Morrison encyclopedia, and she has this great speech where she talks about one of the things that we have to figure out is how do you, how do you narrate the self without erasing other people, right? Like how do you, how do you narrate the self --and not what people project on to you, but you right?-- And how do you do that without erasing another person's existence? I would say that that's like one of our core challenges as we become more connected. And disconnected.

[00:05:22] "All definitions are suspect"

[00:05:22] Um, tell me more about that. I mean, no, it's fascinating because I, there is an element of defining who we are which comes with, you know, defining who isn't like us or who we aren't. In journalism certainly we do that a lot, you know, who gets the label and who doesn't and...

[00:05:42] Jose Antonio Vargas: ah and, and, and, and whose labels are we, whose definitions are we going to oblige, right? Which definitions are we going by? I mean, I'm in many conversations where I think always, I'm always the one saying, "Wait a second, are we on the... Do we have the same definition for what we're talking about, right? And I would argue that all definitions are suspect.

[00:06:08] Isabelle Roughol: Which is interesting for someone who started an organization called Define American.

[00:06:15] Jose Antonio Vargas: Well, I mean, to me, that's actually... that to me is the, the most, the most potent part of that is the question. It didn't say Define American period. It said, Define American question mark, right? And I think that's the invitation to conversation. That's the invitation to provocation, right? That's the invitation to question, right? Which to me as an American is probably the most American thing about me. The fact that I have, you know, I have the audacity to question a place that legally I don't even belong to, right? What's more American than that, right? Isn't that what Tony Morrison was doing in her work? What Baldwin was doing with his work? You know, all these people who are only marginalized because of the laws that have been constructed, right? Like they, they were born free and America, told them that they were born free and then America said, "no, you're not." So it's like this challenge of going up against, other people's definitions and claiming yourself and finding language for yourself.

[00:07:28] "Why is it that only a certain portion of the population gets to be an activist?"

[00:07:28] Jose Antonio Vargas: Like for example, I get called an activist or an advocate a lot, and I resisted it for like a decade now. And I finally found a language why, which is: So why is it that only a certain portion of the population get to be activists? What's everybody else? I feel like it exonerates everybody else from like taking responsibility for the country and for the world that we inhabit, right? Like, you know, if I'm an activist then what are you? What are other people, right? Like do people just get to be not active? That kind of inactivity did it, has that gotten us to where we are?

[00:08:09] Isabelle Roughol: Is it that because when you are in a way standing up for the, for the status quo, defending the status quo or not doing anything, which is kind of like defending the status quo, then you're like the default. But if you're speaking up for anything else, then you're an activist?

[00:08:27] Jose Antonio Vargas: Then you're an activist! You know, it's kinda like, you know, it's, I, I've been fascinated watching a lot of these artists who are like, you know, "I'm, I'm an artist, I'm not an activist." And yet there are many people whose very art is dependent on saying, "I'm not what you think I am," or "this is not what you think it is," right? And yet there are people, and this is where I think race and class comes into play, you know, like people who happen to be white just get to be, you know, artists. And yet when it's someone from a marginalized community, all of a sudden they're an activist.

[00:09:03] I think that's probably, for me in the beginning, I remember, you know, almost a decade ago now, it was one of the first things, one of the first events I had to do after I had come out as undocumented, right, publicly claiming who I am as a person and blah, blah, blah. And I was at this event and this person said "the former journalist," introduced me and said "the former journalist now immigrant rights activist, Jose Antonio Vargas."

[00:09:30] And I had just started doing this work and I'm like, wait a second. Like, I am a journalist, like that's. So wait, when did I become a former? When did that happen? And then when did I become an activist? Once I started telling you that I'm not who you think I am? And that I actually have to like name what this is that you, that people can't even name, right?

[00:09:52] "Legalizing pot is a higher priority than legalizing people"

[00:09:52] Jose Antonio Vargas: Like back then, this is what 2011, 2012, right, when immigration, in many ways, I mean, even now in this country, you know, immigration doesn't, it is not a priority for progressives, right? I mean, I think there's been numerous polls that legalizing people in America is usually a lower priority than legalizing marijuana, right?

[00:10:18] Which by the way, I've never smoked pot. I hear it's amazing. I think it's great that people can legally smoke pot. I think people should legally be allowed to smoke pot, but I just find it really indicative of our culture that that's a higher priority than legalizing people.

[00:10:33] “Imprisoned by the language we use on immigrants"

[00:10:33] Isabelle Roughol: Hmm. Okay. There's a lot in there which touches on a lot of topics that I actually wanted to get into. So it's great. I'm just debating, um, which ones to get into first. But since you're talking about progressive politics,, you started this work kind of publicly, you know, under the Obama administration, which was progressive, you know, in name, but was deporting a record number of people.

[00:10:56] Jose Antonio Vargas: Yeah. I mean, yes. The very year I publicly announced that I was, that I'm here illegally. Obama had deported that year 400,000 people.

[00:11:05] Isabelle Roughol: Hmm.

[00:11:06] Um, and you know, they can, they can make qualms around, oh, you know, we had arrested people at the border or so you can't really count that as one person. But they had, and again, I think what's happening in Ukraine right now and the refugee situation in Ukraine, and that horrible, horrific tragedy and the fact that we must welcome what 4 million, 4 million people who have been displaced. I think more than that. So internally within Ukraine and then within neighboring countries, the United States right now, I think is in the process of processing a hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees who have claims to asylum, which is by the way, it's legal to claim asylum, right? You have a right to claim asylum. Now

[00:11:47] Isabelle Roughol: Yes you can't cap

[00:11:48] Jose Antonio Vargas: Can't cap that. You may be denied, right? But it's, to me, it's so jarring in the most fundamental way to see how human beings who are Ukrainians are being treated and talked about and contextualized versus people coming from, you know, African countries or central American countries. Like, what is that about?

[00:12:20] And, I, I, as, as you noted, so I started this organization during the Obama era. I was arrested at the border, at the U S Mexico border during the Obama era, right? When, when all of those young, you know, kids as young as three to as old as 14, you know, walking from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, all the way to Mexico, all the way to the US Mexico border. And I could probably count on one hand how many times those kids, now we're talking about children, were talked about as either refugees or asylees. They were either called migrants or unaccompanied minor. Or to some extent, even illegal immigrants. These illegal immigrant children. I remember seeing a headline on like CBS news, these illegal immigrant children.

[00:13:15] And I will never forget the language that Hillary Clinton, who had been a champion for children ever since her public profile was rising in Arkansas when Bill Clinton was in the governorship. Even Hillary Clinton was imprisoned by the language that we use on this issue that she couldn't even call those children, children, right? I think there was an interview she did with Jorge Ramos and she basically said, you know, go back, don't come.

[00:13:44] Isabelle Roughol: Which we heard again recently from Kamala Harris. So I'm wondering, you know, after the Trump years, which were extremely aggressive in the rhetoric and the policies, you know, the Biden campaign kind of promised something different. And I wonder, you know, what it's like over there. I haven't been in the states in a couple of years, but is it really different? What, what is it like?

[00:14:09] "We can call immigrants essential labor, but we don't think of them as essential people"

[00:14:09] Jose Antonio Vargas: Well, it took the Biden administration about a year to lift Title 42. You know, The Trump administration used the pandemic to say that we should violate our own laws and not allow people to claim for asylum, to apply for asylum. So that was just lifted or it's going to be lifted actually in May, may 23rd, I think is what they said. Took the Biden administration a year to do that.

[00:14:31] I think in some ways this Democratic administration is showing us again the limitations of both of these parties. Democrats, many of whom come from immigrant families... Alex Padilla, you know, the new Senator from California, speaks really eloquently and clearly about his immigrant background and the fact that he's a champion for immigrant rights, because he's talking about his family, right? Bob Menendez from New Jersey, who's been a consistent loyal champion for immigrant rights. Dick Durbin from Illinois, you know, one of the chief architects of the Dream Act, which by the way is still not law in this country.

[00:15:04] So those are the usual people that, you know, that have been supportive. But the reality is they're running up against a system and a structure in which we can call immigrants essential labor, but we don't think of them as essential people, right? I think there was a quote that I read either in The Economist, Um, a magazine that I really should read a lot more than I do come to think of it. Um, there was a quote about some, some, some MP, who said we wanted workers and they sent us people, right? Like where would the global economy be without migrant workers?

[00:15:39] Isabelle Roughol: And at the same time, every time that you make that sort of economic argument for immigration, I feel like it's, it's kind of a dangerous slope to, to kind of be utilitarian in the way that we look at immigrants and especially refugees.

[00:15:56] Jose Antonio Vargas: Especially refugees. Well that's actually why I'm bringing it up because I'm realizing, a decade into this work, that focusing on immigrants as labor has been counterproductive. In many ways again, it has shown us the limitations of looking at this as an economic argument, right?

[00:16:16] "Trafficking in empathy"

[00:16:16] Jose Antonio Vargas: And, and the thing that I'm questioning a lot about myself these days is the limitations of empathy. Is empathy, which is something I pray for, I hope my work traffics in empathy, but at the same time, how can we talk about empathy with the kind of awareness, hyper awareness of the power structures that exist? You know, at the end of the day, people get up everyday thinking about themselves and what ails them and what worries them and their concerns. They're not getting up thinking about me, right? Or why is it that, you know, I'm still undocumented? There are structures and there are systems bigger than just all of us. And so how can we act as individuals, but at the same time, make sure that we are aware of and are actively dismantling structures and systems that are in direct conflict with our individual principles. Does that make sense what I'm trying to say?

[00:17:27] Isabelle Roughol: Yeah, it does. Well, I mean, you mentioned you traffic in empathy. In the work that I do, I often encounter people who have a instinctive kind of anti-immigration reaction because it's the rhetoric they've heard so much. And I actually find that it's usually quite possible to change their mind within a five or 10 minute conversation when you start giving concrete example. They're like, "oh, we don't want immigrants at all" right? And then you're like, "what about this person from Ukraine? Or what about this person from Haiti? Here's what happened to them. Here's what they're contributing."

[00:18:05] Jose Antonio Vargas: Once you personalize it, once you personalize it, right? Yeah.

[00:18:09] "The only time many white Americans meet a person of color or an immigrant is through the media they consume"

[00:18:09] Isabelle Roughol: And so, one of the shows that I binged over lockdown actually was Superstore. When you have this character Mateo who learns that he's undocumented, I was like, "huh, that really looks like Jose's story." And then I Googled it and I'm like, "oh, it is Jose's story." can you tell me a bit about that work that you're doing and sort of why you're going through pop culture?

[00:18:30] Jose Antonio Vargas: Well, I mean, let me just say that I'm, I am like a product of popular culture. I knew about America before even arriving to America because of popular culture, right? Like Home Alone, Roseanne, you know, Whitney Houston, Michael... I didn't know Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson were black until I got here. They were just Americans. Like, you know, the Philippines was the first exercise in empire building for the United States. So apparently the Philippines is the most Americanized of all the Asian countries. I don't know this, but that's what people say.

[00:19:01] So, I'm a product of it. I speak the way that I do because I consumed everything at the Mountain View public library and borrowed every movie, every VHS tape from Blockbuster. Remember Blockbuster? That was like a big thing. So every immigrant will tell you that the first thing we know about America, we learn from, from the screen, maybe a television show or a movie. So that was always an interest of mine.

[00:19:29] And given the limitations of enacting any sort of immigration reform at the federal level, at the national level, one of the first things I really did before I even started Define American was to kind of do a landscape analysis of where everybody is. And this is again, I think, the journalist in me? Like where, who are all the organizations? What do they all do? What lane do they occupy? And then pretty early on, it surfaced, it became clear that narrative was kind of this unchartered territory, right? Meaning narrative as a system of stories, not, not just one individual story like mine, but where does the individual story exists in a constellation of stories?

[00:20:15] So you hear it on TV, you listened to it on the radio, you read it in a book, you watch it on a TV show or a movie. So because that lane was, that terrain was in many ways virgin territory... you could really look at, for example, the LGBTQ movement, right? I was in high school, when Will and Grace was the number one show on television. You know, I was in middle school when Ellen Degeneres came out as gay, right, on the cover of Time Magazine. So I always saw those as like a way to get people to understand what they think of as other or what they think of as not them.

[00:20:50] So we took that strategy and looked at organizations like GLAAD, which has been very, very successful here in the United States, so much so that they have an award show every year that is like an actual thing that honors representation of LGBTQ people in the media. It's fascinating to me how that has become a real thing. A real thing. And representation of immigrants is nowhere near that, right?

[00:21:15] So the Hollywood work, working in film and movies, has become kind of our flagship program. We started it with Superstore. It was actually our first consulting project. And we reached out to them because they knew that they were inspired. You know, there's how many undocumented gay Philipinos do you see on television? You know what I mean? So we reached out and it was so interesting because they said they were gonna introduce this character. And then I remember one of the initial conversations was, oh yeah, we'll make the character legal by like, you know, the end of the season or something

[00:21:48] Isabelle Roughol: Magic trick, like?

[00:21:50] Jose Antonio Vargas: Like, what is that? Some sort of like immigration reform by immaculate conception? Like how does that happen? Right?

[00:21:57] But remember, this was, Trump had been elected president. So even people who mean well had no idea that you couldn't just, poof, you're a Us citizen, right? The number one question I get, and here I am doing this work for more than a decade, is still, "why don't you just get legal?" That is the number one question. So what is that about? That's about narrative. That's about story. That's about information, right? People have no idea.

[00:22:28] So using that character... so we worked on that show for, what, four or five seasons? And what I loved about Mateo as a character is that he really avoided all the tropes. You know, like he wasn't a good immigrant or a bad immigrant. He was just an immigrant. You know, he could kind of be an asshole cause people can be an asshole, right? He wasn't like some perfect immigrant. He had to, you know, he wanted to date, right? I love that he's a part of a community. You know, that, that episode, when ICE came looking out for him, you know, and you saw the coworkers trying to like protect him and try to figure out what to do. That's real. And I'm just glad that we were able to work on, you know, as we remember it, it's the first regular character on network TV, and mind you that was broadcast TV, you know, that's an undocumented character.

[00:23:16] So we read the scripts, we consulted on the character. And then that became the jumping off point to what's now become a really robust consulting program. I think we're up to more than a hundred television shows and films. And we focus specifically on TV because it's about characters, right? You follow a character from one episode to the next. And so you develop kind of a parasocial, you know, like, I mean, sometimes I still think of myself just like, I'm like, uh, I'm like the Filipino gay version of Frasier and Niles put together. I have developed such a relationship with Frasier and Niles right. Because of all the episodes I consumed of Frazier that that has become a thing for me. Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley following her from like Anne of Green Gables to Anne of Avonlea. I can't believe I just said that out loud.

[00:24:08] Isabelle Roughol: That's okay. I also binged that in lockdown. So you're speaking my language.

[00:24:12] Jose Antonio Vargas: But the thing about this too, is like when you follow the characters, one of the things that has become clear to me, especially because before the pandemic I was traveling nonstop across the country, is most people, most Americans, specifically white Americans live in predominantly white towns and have predominantly white friends. Meaning the only time they meet a person of color and or an immigrant is through the media they consume. So what? I'm going to leave it up to Fox News? I'm going to leave it up to conservative talk radio, right? We have to intervene. And so in many ways, that's our work, it's intervention.

[00:24:51] "We work on shows that reach the movable middle"

[00:24:51] and it is super powerful because one of the shows that I read that you worked on is Roswell, Um, for me, that's a meaningful one because there was another Roswell. There was, there was the original Roswell when I was a teenager and I was obsessed with it. But now looking at it as someone who knows better, I realize that that original Roswell just completely erased the immigration story, which was in the original books. Every character was white. The whole metaphor of, you know, aliens as, as immigrants, et cetera, completely disappeared. And they just kind of whitewashed the whole thing. And so now you have this new generation just getting a completely different story and it just feels like something that just wasn't on TV 20 years ago.

[00:25:33] Jose Antonio Vargas: And thank you for saying that because I think people forget that there was an original Roswell. I think it was the seed. Was it the UPN or CW?

[00:25:41] Isabelle Roughol: Oh, my, it was a whole thing. It was, it was, uh, it was WB

[00:25:45] Jose Antonio Vargas: WB!

[00:25:45] Isabelle Roughol: Before CW. And then there was a whole fan campaign. It got canceled. It was a whole fan

[00:25:51] Jose Antonio Vargas: There

[00:25:51] Isabelle Roughol: which

[00:25:51] Jose Antonio Vargas: a whole thing.

[00:25:52] Isabelle Roughol: in I was like 17 years old to, uh, to get it saved, where the network executives were inundated with Tabasco bottles because the characters eat a lot of Tabasco.

[00:26:03] Jose Antonio Vargas: Didn't know all of that. Didn't of of that.

[00:26:05] Isabelle Roughol: And it got picked up by UPN for a third season and final. It was really, really bad, and then it got canceled. It was, it was a whole thing. Yeah.

[00:26:16] Jose Antonio Vargas: But we loved working on that show. I mean, you know, again, especially now, this is like the golden age of television. And so in this golden age of television, given that, you know, we're still a relatively small non-profit organization, we can't do everything. So we've decided that our kind of anchor is movable middle. We actively want to consult on shows that reach what we call the movable middle, right? It's not like the rabid anti-immigrant right. Or the pro immigrant left, which is really, if you look at the numbers, not that big.

[00:26:49] So the base for support for immigrant rights in this country is not terribly big. That's why you don't see people protesting. There's just not a lot of energy in that way. Now, mind you, I'm not minimizing at all, all the activism that is happening clearly, you know, as someone who's friends with many, many activists and organizers and advocates. That's happening. Even after the Trump era or now that we're out of the Trump era, it's been interesting how, even though nothing, relatively little has changed for the lives of immigrants in this country, especially undocumented immigrants, you don't see it, you know, kind of covered with the same kind of like alarm bells.

[00:27:31] I mean, I remember one of the first things I had to keep telling people during the Trump era was that Obama didn't have that great a history with immigrant rights. And progressives, they don't want to hear that. They were like, "wait, what? What about Obama?" So I think realizing that this has become, that this is a product of a bi-partisan mess and that what's happening, the status quo is the way that it is because in many ways we prioritized labor over people. So long as they're doing the work, you know...

[00:28:04] Isabelle Roughol: So, so that we keep the, well, "we", the US, I'm not there, but we keep the undocumented migrants because we need them to do the work, but we also don't care enough about them as people to, you know, make their lives easier and give them documents and status.

[00:28:23] "We have yet to find some sort of language that talks about how borderless business and money is and how people are still very much, you know, locked up by these borders"

[00:28:23] Jose Antonio Vargas: Yup. Yup. And that, that to me is what's, you know, look... as, as you know, I can't, I'm not able to see the world. Not yet. And maybe because of that, because of that limitation, I always push myself to think about the global context. So what does this mean globally, in the era of like Amazon Prime and the era of iPhones in which consumerism is absolutely global, markets are completely interdependent, and yet, these workers, documented or undocumented, right? There's a kind of, um... It feels like we have, we have yet to find some sort of language that talks about how borderless business and money is and how people are still very much locked up by these borders and by these limitations. And I'm trying to understand, what are the narrative shifts that we all need to work on so that people can actually be free to move from one country to the next? If they want to.

[00:29:45] Because that's the other thing. One of the things we have bastardized is most people don't want to move. Most people want to stay where they are. And of course that's more than okay. Which means that the people who decide to move, who decide to leave what they know, to go to a place that they don't know, that is an act of courage. That's a courageous thing to do.

[00:30:12] Isabelle Roughol: There's... There's a lot there that I've been thinking about a lot and in these interviews I've been having. One is that the backlash against globalization has turned against people much more easily because in a way it's something that's probably easier to understand when you see, you know, people from somewhere else arrive in your country, or people crossing borders, in a way that it hasn't turned against, you know, flows of trade, of capital of, of products.

[00:30:45] During the pandemic, there was this instinct to close our borders and be safe. But obviously we couldn't do without trade from other places because our economies are so interlinked, but, but we were quite okay with closing the door to people. And in a way it's easier to be mad at an immigrant than it is to be mad at a company that is, you know, offshoring its profits. And I don't know if there's a question there, but it's, it's something that I've been thinking about a lot in that the immigrant is an easier representation of a global world we can't quite control and that we don't quite understand.

[00:31:26] Jose Antonio Vargas: And by the way that we benefit from, right? I mean, I, I try. Sometimes it's really hard cause you're like, I don't want to buy it from Amazon, you know, I want to support local businesses and then, but there are some times when it's like, Amazon is really the quickest thing. And I have to say the way Amazon Prime is structured, it's like, whoa, like what is this? But then I think to myself, if I make that purchase, what are the actual consequences of that, that I don't even know, right? The kind of the unseen irrigation system that once we do that, who's benefiting, who's not benefiting, whose money... And now having traveled all over the United States and, and you see towns that have been decimated since the eighties. Because the labor market, because the business has to move and they moved off shore, right. I think we absolutely must address that. We absolutely must address like how globalization has impacted like direct families.

[00:32:30] I mean, I think that's something, I don't know about you, but I feel like in many ways we haven't really told that story as much as we should to really understand the global economy at play.

[00:32:42] Isabelle Roughol: And how it has forced people to move, who, as you say, don't want to move because there are plenty. There, there, there has to be a right to stay at home

[00:32:51] Jose Antonio Vargas: There has to.

[00:32:52] Isabelle Roughol: If that's, if that's what you, if that's you what you wish.

[00:32:55] "If I had a say in the matter as a 12 year old, I would have told my mom, don't do that"

[00:32:55] Jose Antonio Vargas: I'm still sitting with this and it happened two years ago now, before the pandemic certainly, like. I ended up writing a book, um, a few years ago, three years ago now, and it's called Dear America and colleges, to my surprise, probably the most surprising thing is colleges are like assigning it right to read.

[00:33:17] Isabelle Roughol: And the freshmen at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, which is like a conservative area. Some dean decided that all the freshmen ought to read my book. And so they bought a lot of copies. My publisher was like, you should go. So I went and I had to give like a convocation that the students, predominantly white students from predominantly conservative families, I remember one woman came up to me and said for Christmas her grandmother gave her a rush Limbaugh books every year, Sets the stage right there.

[00:33:48] Jose Antonio Vargas: Sets the stage, right? And so during the convocation, I gave a little thing and then it was a Q and a, this young man gets up and says, "Mr. Vargas, in the book, you said that your mom doesn't regret sending you here to America from the Philippines, because you, you look how you turned out." And then he goes, "do you regret being sent here?" And he asked this in front of like 2,000 other people while I'm up on stage by myself looking like a hot ass mess I'm sure. And I remember pausing and going, "Yes. I regret it. That if I had had a choice, if I had had a say in the matter as a 12 year old, I would have told my mom, 'Don't do that. I know that you, I know that you mean well, I know that you want better for me, but what's actually better for me is to have you as my mom.'"

[00:34:48] Isabelle Roughol: Yeah.

[00:34:51] Jose Antonio Vargas: Now, when do we talk about that in the immigrant rights movement? Where is that conversation? Right? Because I don't think we talk about that enough. And I guess I'm quote unquote successful. I don't really know what that means. I'm defining for myself what that means. But relationships are hard for me. And I think some part of me got left on that plane when my mom said goodbye. And if I could do it, if I could do it again, I would have said, "No, I want to stay."

[00:35:39] "That's the power of story"

[00:35:39] Jose Antonio Vargas: And to me, that kind of complexity, I have just seen by the way a movie called The Lost Daughter. I don't know if you've seen this. It's on Netflix. Olivia Coleman is in it. So in the movie, this character ends up leaving, she called them abandoning her two daughters for three years. She left them for three years because she just couldn't do it. There was a line in the movie and she said, children are a crushing responsibility. Children are a crushing responsibility. And then Dakota Johnson's character said , "how did it feel?" And then Olivia says, "it felt amazing."

[00:36:22] But watching that character, which is really a character study, this film, showed... the consequences of Olivia Coleman leaving, abandoning her children for three years. Three years. Okay. Talk about empathy. It was so interesting how watching that character gave me a different kind of language to empathize with my mom, although it's completely different. You know, although in my head, when I was a kid, I was abandoned, I was not. She sent me here to look for a better life, but she left. It's been almost 30 years. But watching what Olivia Coleman had to live with and made me see my mom in like a really different way.

[00:37:09] This is why to me art is so amazing in this way, right? What does this Filipina woman have to do with Olivia Coleman's character, who's some professor of Italian translation, you know? But in the human condition part, there was that connective tissue.

[00:37:27] Isabelle Roughol: And that's the power of story.

[00:37:30] Jose Antonio Vargas: That's the power of story. I don't know. How do you, how do you quantify that? How do I measure that? That's different from 300 people showing up at a rally, right? Or, you know these are the 1000 signatures that we collected. I don't think it's less valid, but it's real. It's tangible.

[00:37:51] "Narrative is not a slice of the pie. It's actually the pan."

[00:37:51] Jose Antonio Vargas: I think narrative is not a slice of the pie. It's actually the pan. So I think trying to understand in many ways what we face in this country and in the world are narrative challenges, cause we've been told all these stories, right? What Tony Morrison calls the master narrative of history, the master narrative of fiction. I'm so glad that we're finally living at a time when the British royalty is going to Jamaica and the master narrative is being questioned. Right saying, "Wait a second. We did not want to be, we don't want to be your subjects. Whose decision was this, right?

[00:38:32] So like we are questioning narratives and at a time of just the fracturing of media, for good and bad, right, I think having strategies that are not one size fits all... like we could have just said that Define American is only focusing on Hollywood, but that's not enough. What about the news? What about YouTube videos?

[00:38:58] When you go to YouTube right now, you type immigration, you'll be bombarded by all the anti-immigrant videos that you're seeing on YouTube. And we realized, this woman Shauna, who's the head of our digital storytelling program, she realized that there isn't a concerted effort among immigrant rights organizations or people who care about immigrant rights to actually come up with a way to counter all these anti-immigrant narratives on a place like YouTube. So we have a program specifically on that, right? So I think looking at the entire media ecosystem and figuring out... like right now we don't have a theater department or a book department, but I can easily see that that's something that we can, that we ought to be pursuing.

[00:39:39] "Storytelling is the only place where nuance can happen"

[00:39:39] Isabelle Roughol: And picking up on something that you said earlier, you know, you mentioned that we're not having this conversation in the immigrant rights movement, you know, about, you know, how you felt about your mom sending you to America. And I wonder if that's because in a way when we acknowledge the ambivalence and the nuance of all of this, it feels like giving an inch to the people that, that don't want us around or that you have to be very, very pro, very positive, very, um, as black and white in a way as the other side is, in order to fight that narrative. It's really hard to make room for nuance. Does that ring true?

[00:40:21] Jose Antonio Vargas: But, but, but to me, this is, this is why storytelling is so crucial because it's the only place, it may be the only place where nuance is necessary and can exist, when two things can happen at once. Politicians need to be elected and they'll say whatever they need to get elected, right? That means too often that nuance is not part of the equation, but it means though that we have to insist on it.

[00:40:53] We insist on it at Define American with the stories we tell and that we help tell, right? You know, when you go to our website, it says very clearly we're humanizing the immigrant narrative one story at a time. That is a huge task, right? Huge task. And humanizing means not making any judgment on what if the mom didn't want to send, you know, that, that, that anecdote that I just gave. And I remember when I said out loud, when my answer was, "yes, I regret it. I would have preferred to stay home." I kept thinking who else has said that? Where is that story? Is there a movie on that? Is there like... somebody, cause I think I need to see that. Because right now we're creating policies that in many ways exist in a moral vacuum. And sometimes I think the dehumanization of migrants, immigrants, happens because we haven't heard stories that insist on complexity and nuance.

[00:41:57] You know, when Trump was president, all I kept thinking was I don't want any more tragic porn. Whenever you turn on the TV, it was like an immigrant crying, torn from their families. I mean, it was like, who is this for? At the time we had an artist in residence, Yosimar Reyes, brilliant man, uh, he coined the term "undocujoy" just to look at what it means to actually inhabit happiness and joy-ness and where do we find that?

[00:42:28] So just even showing photos of smiling, undocumented people was like a way of rebelling, was again insisting on nuance and complexity.

[00:42:38] "White is not a country"

[00:42:38] Isabelle Roughol: I want to talk briefly about your new project before,

[00:42:41] Jose Antonio Vargas: Oh gosh.

[00:42:43] Isabelle Roughol: That's not going to be brief, is it? Uh, no, no, no. I'll I'll do it briefly.

[00:42:47] Yeah, cause you mentioned um, you know, that there that there wasn't, much activism or, or that the American public didn't seem to care so much about immigrants. And at the same time, we've seen a lot of activism around race relations in America. And I wonder how the two things connect. And it sounds like that's kind of what you're looking at in your next book if I read that correctly,

[00:43:13] Jose Antonio Vargas: Well, um, Margaret Atwood wrote a brilliant review of Toni Morrison's Beloved. She said that an epigraph in a book is like a key to a piece of music, like the key change, right. I've always like put that in because it sets the whole book. And in Beloved, it was, "I will call them my people who are not my people and them beloved who are not beloved." That was the epigraph for that, Romans, it's from the Bible.

[00:43:42] My epigraph for this book is a James Baldwin quote: "I'm only black if you think you're white."

[00:43:48] Isabelle Roughol: Um,

[00:43:50] Jose Antonio Vargas: " I'm only black if you think you're white." So it signals the construction, right. That race is a social construct. So now that you have the emerging American majority in this country, mostly not black and mostly not white. There are 59 million immigrants in America. In the next 50 years, the 59 million immigrants and their children and descendants will constitute 88% of the population growth, mostly from Asian and Latin countries, right. So where do all these Latin and Asian people fit in this black-white binary? So that's the question I'm trying to answer. And I think I'm going to get in a lot of trouble. This book may really get me deported. Like, wait, what is he doing now? Can't he just stay in his undocumented lane? What is he doing?

[00:44:41] Um, but in many ways I think I am, I'm utilizing every skill I have as a journalist. I love research. I'm the kind of person that can just, you know, I can just spend hours just going over like original sources. So a lot of research, a lot of reportage, a lot of analysis. And this is, I think in many ways, it's like the culmination of like everything I've learned about being a journalist since I was 17 years old. So I'm working on that right now. I have a really hard deadline, which for any writer is so scary.

[00:45:11] Um, but yeah, but to me, it's, it's race and immigration together. And you can't really have one without the other, you know. Again, unless you're native American, unless you're African-American descendant of enslaved people, you're an immigrant from somewhere, right. And I think the fact that we have let whiteness as a construct dictate so much of our conversation has been so detrimental to everybody, including white people.

[00:45:44] I'm always amazed when I meet white people who don't know what kind of white they are. I'm like, wait, what, are you Irish white? Are you Italian white? Are you German white? Are you? Like what kind of white? And this book is actually partly inspired by all the young white people I met who had no idea, you know, what kind of white they are. And now in this era of ancestry.com and 23 and me, I think people are more interested in kind of figuring that out.

[00:46:08] But I think that lack of awareness about people's specific backgrounds and what they had to face when they got here, it tells you that that kind of, you know, Gore Vidal calls it the United States of Amnesia, right? That kind of historical indifference has really hurt the country, specifically white people in this country.

[00:46:34] Because in Europe, people are not white, right? They're British. They're Ukrainian. It's not like this, like white thing. Am I wrong on this?

[00:46:41] Isabelle Roughol: Well, it's interesting because... so I'm French. And, um, I first came to the US as an exchange student when I was 17 years old. And I

[00:46:51] Jose Antonio Vargas: Which school did you go to? Which school?

[00:46:54] Isabelle Roughol: Montclair High School, in Montclair, New Jersey.

[00:46:57] And I was fascinated actually by meeting all these people who were like, "oh, I'm I'm French" or "I'm German", or "I'm Irish." And then I I'm like, "No, like your great grandfather was, your great-great-grandfather was. Like, you're not, you're not French like you and I don't have, you don't speak my language. You don't know my culture. And then when, you know, you think you're French on, you know, ancestry day at the high school where you put on a béret and you kind of mock and, and ape my culture, you know?

[00:47:25] So I always felt a little like, Ugh, are you French really though? Um, so that was, that was my reaction. Um, and because to me, I'm like, "No, you're American." But I understand that you're of French ancestry or German or whatever, but we don't have the same culture and you have a lot more in common with a Black American or an Asian American to me, culture wise, than you do with me. Or at least, you know, before I became Americanized cause I'm quite Americanized now and maybe we have a bit more in common now.

[00:47:56] Um, so that, so that was my initial reaction as a French person. And at the same time, you know, you're asking what, what it's like in Europe. It's complex, right? Because, um, France is not an ethnicity-defined country. It's, it's defined by culture and language and, and values. And so you have a lot of non-white French people. But there is also this conversation that is starting, that is in very different terms than it is happening in America and that is long overdue as well. Um, but it, but it's interesting being in the middle of an American-defined conversation on race and a French-defined conversation on race, which are extremely different, um, in many ways. And that could be a whole other conversation... Another hour, but it's, uh, interesting. Yeah.

[00:48:42] Jose Antonio Vargas: Well, but that's why I can't. I just, I gotta, you know, I, I, again, I just turned 41 and for the first time in a long time, actually trying to prioritize my health because I may be in my fifties until I see Europe. So I want to make sure I'm able to like, you know, really, really enjoy it and see it. I can't wait. I really cannot wait. I cannot wait to like, you know, see all of that.

[00:49:05] "I traded a life of being in the closet as undocumented in limbo to being a public undocumented person whose life is still in limbo"

[00:49:05] Isabelle Roughol: if I may, I'm curious actually because, you know, you came out, so-and-so, as undocumented, like a decade ago now. And I've heard you talk about it a lot. I haven't heard you talk so much about the consequences and usually, you know, we don't seek out the limelight as immigrants, especially as undocumented immigrants. Um, what's, you know, what's your situation these days?

[00:49:30] Jose Antonio Vargas: I think the consequences has been, I traded a life of being in the closet as undocumented in limbo to like being a public undocumented person whose life is still in limbo. Right. I mean, and in many ways that's the biggest surprise. I thought that I do this, something happens. Nothing's happened, like meaning, you know, I got arrested and detained once. Um, I have to be careful, you know. Clearly I don't want to, like, I can't go back to the US Mexico border cause I'll get arrested.

[00:50:03] I can get arrested at any point because I'm undocumented. So I'm kind of just prepared for all of that. But I think the biggest change in me is: How do I act like I'm actually free? That's the question now is like, you know, this is why I bring up Tony Morrison quite a bit because she, she, you know, she freed me up. I was like a eighth grader. So I have to go back to that eighth grader who was free right before I found out I was undocumented, who was free. So my goal is to be as creatively, mentally, intellectually free, as I possibly can. Like that has to be borderless. That has to be mine. These laws, you know? Yeah. I didn't make them, I got to go follow them. I didn't make them. Like, I can deal with all of that so long as this is free. And I'm telling you some days I win and some days I don't win.

[00:50:57] Isabelle Roughol: Seems mad to me that someone as outspoken, as out there as you are in the last decade, hasn't been able to, and who's contributed so much, hasn't, you know, been able... like at some point some senator would be like, yeah, sure, I'll sign sponsor you or...

[00:51:18] Jose Antonio Vargas: No, but I, but I think I'd say no to that. I don't think. That was a decision I had made 11 years ago. Right. Like, do I go ask for a private bill or do I? I can't. I mean, that was, again, my decision was I'm one of 11 million people and mind you, I have a lot of, I have quite a few friends who pushed me on this, who said that maybe it's time to ask for a private bill. Like what you're just saying, go to a senator and ask for some sort of a relief for me. I dunno. I just, I just can't, I can't wrap my head around that. Especially because I've met so many undocumented people in this past decade. I'm not sure I could look them in the eye, you know?

[00:52:05] Isabelle Roughol: Do you have a path to citizenship, residence at this point?

[00:52:09] Jose Antonio Vargas: Nope, Nope, none, none.

[00:52:12] Isabelle Roughol: Wow.

[00:52:14] Jose Antonio Vargas: But Hey, you know, like we all have to carry something and that's, this is the thing that I carry.

[00:52:22] Isabelle Roughol: Well, thank you so much this conversation, Jose. It was, it was fascinating. We're a bit over an hour, so I, I, gotta let you go, but,

[00:52:30] Jose Antonio Vargas: Yeah, I unfortunately have jump to another meeting, but thank you so much. I'm so glad we did this. And Hey, you're going to, you're going to give me, you know, hopefully, by the time I'm able to travel, you're still in London because London is one of my favorite places, at least what I read about it or watch it on TV. Um, can't wait to see it.

[00:52:46] Outro

[00:52:46] Isabelle Roughol: That was Jose Antonio Vargas, journalist, author, filmmaker, founder of Define American, and as he puts it, American without papers. Thank you so much for such an interesting conversation, Jose. He has had his hands in so many fascinating projects. His memoir is Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen." And the next book will be "White is Not a Country." He was a producer on the hit play "What the Constitution Means to Me." And of course this conversation referenced a few shows and movies well worth checking out: Superstore, Roswell, The Lost Daughter... I'll be flooding the show notes with links to all of this.

[00:53:23] As always, please sign up for the newsletter at borderlinepod.com to hear more from me and the podcast. You can also go to IsabelleRoughol.Com to check out my other projects and my writing. Given how hard it is to talk right now, there might be more writing and less audio in the next few weeks, but I did record another interview before COVID felled me. One that I'm also super excited to share with a journalist that I met also a decade plus ago, I'm starting to age myself here, uh, when I was working in Cambodia. Thierry Cruvellier was covering the Khmer Rouge international tribunal same time that I was, though he was doing it far better. He is a specialist on international justice and we talked specifically about that, about international justice, but not just international criminal courts, though also about that and Ukraine, but we talked about colonial crimes, about reparations, about truth and reconciliation and all the forms that international justice takes. Believe me, it is a fascinating conversation. I cannot wait to edit it and to share it with you. That's next time on Borderline.

[00:54:27] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music was by Audionautix. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. I'll talk to you soon, hopefully with a little bit more breath in my lungs.

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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.