Jose Antonio Vargas On How The Word 'Illegal' Harms Immigration Debate

This year the DOJ instructed U.S. Attorneys' to use the term "illegal alien" in all official documentation. Vargas says that's no coincidence.
Posted at 6:56 PM, Nov 01, 2018

This year, the Department of Justice reportedly instructed U.S. Attorneys' Offices across the country to use the term "illegal alien" when referring to undocumented immigrants. This is the latest development in a years-long battle over the language publications, politicians and the general public uses when discussing illegal immigration. 

VARGAS: "Words are actual organisms that hang in the air and then it gets into your jacket. And then it gets into your skin and before you know it, it's inside of you."

The DOJ said the change of language was meant to simply help government officials be "consistent" when drafting releases. But for journalist, author and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas, the term is not only offensive but it serves as a barrier to reform. 

"The language you use determines not only how you think about something but how you act towards something. … We have gotten in this country so comfortable calling, you know, millions of people illegal. Like, how do you legalize people you call illegal? You don't."

Immigration remains one of America's most important and divisive issues for voters — Republican voters in particular. Despite that, Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive immigration reform law, leaving people like Vargas in limbo. Even President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, notably doesn't provide a path to citizenship.  

Vargas believes, the constant policy fighting and the incredibly high bar attached to programs like DACA mentally impacts the undocumented population. 

VARGAS: "So, when it comes to the issues of immigration, there's this master narrative about what people like me are supposed to do and that we're supposed to earn our citizenship. I had so internalized that that I actually thought that I had to do it."

Vargas arrived in the United States at the age of 12 from the Philippines but he didn't find out his undocumented status until a few years later. Since then, he's built up quite the resume — winning the Pulitzer Prize while working for the Washington Post, founding the immigration advocacy group "Define American" and directing a documentary with MTV. 

VARGAS: "Get a really nice resume. Make a lot of money. Work for prestigious organizations, win awards, and then all of a sudden if I had done all those things I would have earned being American. How twisted is that? … 'What have you done to earn your citizenship?' That's kind of an unfair question to ask anybody."

He revealed his citizenship status to the world in The New York Times Magazine in 2011. He's often referred to as America's "most famous undocumented immigrant."

VARGAS: "Now, don't get me wrong, I am here illegally. Someone can go arrest me right now [while I'm] talking to you. That's a fact. I am here illegally without authorization from the government. But I, as a person, am not illegal."

Jose Antonio Vargas is currently on a book tour for his recently released memoir "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen."