WASHINGTON ― Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and one of the nation’s most famous undocumented immigrants, will watch President Donald Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday night as a guest of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Vargas, a onetime editor with The Huffington Post and reporter for The Washington Post, is taking a risk by joining Pelosi in the Capitol. The Trump administration has broadened the category of undocumented immigrants who can be deported to include just about anyone. Vargas, a co-founder of the media organization Define American, was brought to the United States as a child from the Philippines. That means he could be deported back to the country now run by President Rodrigo Duterte, who is no fan of the activist.
Since becoming president last year, Duterte has unleashed a killing spree across the Philippines in which drug users and others have been murdered. The death toll has topped 6,000 in one of the most brazen human rights abuses of the 21st century. Sending Vargas there would mean a very uncertain future for him.
Vargas first told his story publicly in the New York Times magazine in 2011.
One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab. She handed me a jacket. “Baka malamig doon” were among the few words she said. (“It might be cold there.”) When I arrived at the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport with her, my aunt and a family friend, I was introduced to a man I’d never seen. They told me he was my uncle. He held my hand as I boarded an airplane for the first time. It was 1993, and I was 12.
My mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me thousands of miles away to live with her parents in America — my grandfather (Lolo in Tagalog) and grandmother (Lola). After I arrived in Mountain View, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay Area, I entered sixth grade and quickly grew to love my new home, family and culture. I discovered a passion for language, though it was hard to learn the difference between formal English and American slang. One of my early memories is of a freckled kid in middle school asking me, “What’s up?” I replied, “The sky,” and he and a couple of other kids laughed. I won the eighth-grade spelling bee by memorizing words I couldn’t properly pronounce. (The winning word was “indefatigable.”)
In 2014, he was detained over his immigration status at a Texas airport, but eventually released.
Vargas explained why he would attend Trump’s joint address in a Washington Post essay on Tuesday evening:
I decided to show up tonight because that’s what immigrants, undocumented and documented, do: We show up. Despite the obvious risks and palpable fear, we show up to work, to school, to church, to our communities, in big cities and rural towns. ... We show up even though many Americans, especially white Americans with their own immigrant backgrounds, can’t seem to see the common threads between why we show up and why they showed up, at a time when showing up did not require visas and the Border Patrol didn’t exist yet.
Vargas will not be the only undocumented immigrant to confront Trump by showing up for the joint address. He appears to be the only one, however, who isn’t protected by “Dreamer” status, which has been granted to some people brought here as young children. (He was just slightly too old to qualify under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.)
Other lawmakers and their undocumented-immigrant guests include:
- Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) and Eliel Aguillon, DACA recipient
- Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) and Roque Pech, DACA recipient and teacher
- Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) and Gregory “Ronnie” James, DACA recipient
- Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Oscar Juarez-Luna, DACA recipient
- Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Aaima Sayed, DACA recipient
- Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Astrid Silva, DACA recipient who is also giving the Spanish-language response to the president’s speech
- Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Yuriana Aguilar, DACA recipient
- Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Martin Batalla Vidal, DACA recipient
- Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) and Maria Barragan-Arreguin, DACA recipient
- Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Lupe Salmeron, DACA recipient
- Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Zarna Patel, DACA recipient
Elise Foley contributed reporting.