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Jose Antonio Vargas' undocumented life

Former Mountain View resident shares what it's like to be an immigrant in 'Dear America'

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has dealt with labels his entire life — whether that be as a gay man, a journalist, a Filipino or an immigrant. But the label that prompted him to become a vocal advocate for immigrant rights is "undocumented citizen."

In his new memoir "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen," the former Mountain View resident details his experience growing up on the Midpeninsula believing that he was a permanent U.S. resident, only to discover in his mid-teens that he was an undocumented immigrant who was smuggled into the country illegally by his grandparents when he was 12.

Vargas, now 37, will return to the Midpeninsula on Sept. 29 to share his story with Kepler's Literary Foundation in the community that helped him pursue his goals of higher education and a career in journalism and that recently named a new public elementary school in Mountain View in his honor.

Vargas became one of the most recognizable faces of the immigration debate in 2011 after he decided to "come out" about his status as an American without papers in an essay in the New York Times.

In his new book, Vargas said it was on California Avenue in Palo Alto while interviewing Mark Zuckerberg for an article in the New Yorker in 2010 when he realized he needed to tell the story of his immigration status to the public. Zuckerberg had asked Vargas where he was from, and Vargas couldn't answer. After releasing his story in the Times in 2011, Vargas followed up with a documentary in 2013.

By showing his personal struggle in "Documented," Vargas said he hoped he could get people on opposite sides of this debate talking to each other in a meaningful way.

"My goal from the beginning was to show what a broken immigration system does. And this is what it does," he told the Mountain View Voice when the documentary was released.

"Dear America," which hit bookstores on Sept. 18, expands on Vargas' documentary, providing greater insight on what it's like to be undocumented in America.

Even to this day, Vargas says, he lives every day unsure of what is coming next. He has wondered if he will be deported. He has worried that the people who have helped him along the way — the people who have lied for him — will get into trouble.

Vargas told NBC News the defining moment that prompted him to write the book came after the 2016 presidential election when he was asked to vacate his home by the building manager of his downtown Los Angeles apartment.

"The building manager was like, 'Hey, this might not be a good idea for you to stay here because we don't know if we'll be able to protect you if ICE showed up,'" Vargas said. "The moment he said that, it captured my predicament in a way that I have a home, but it's not really my home."

He since has been living off the grid without a permanent address, hopping around different Airbnbs across the country while writing his book and operating his nonprofit media organization Define American, he told the media. On Monday, Los Angeles-based United Talent Agency (UTA) signed Vargas and Define American, according to a Define American blog post.

Vargas says "Dear America" is not about immigration or politics.

"This book is about homelessness, not in a traditional sense, but in the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like myself find ourselves in," Vargas writes. "This book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by ... about constantly hiding from the government and, in the process, hiding from ourselves. This book is about what it means to not have a home."

In the book, Vargas gives readers unprecedented access into his life. He describes his early years living in Mountain View with his grandparents and extended family as a typical kid, attending Crittenden Middle School and Mountain View High School and interning at the Mountain View Voice.

Vargas recalls how his life dramatically changed after he discovered his Green Card was fake when he tried to apply for a driver's license. His grandfather revealed that the "uncle" who brought him over from the Philippines in 1993 was actually someone Vargas' family paid $4,500 to make sure he got into the country. That secret changed how Vargas approached life and work.

Vargas grappled with the emotional distress over his future as he found himself limited at every step of his life because of legal documentation. He focused his energy on carving out a career in journalism and advocacy work for others who face constant obstacles. He worked at top newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, and eventually started the immigration advocacy nonprofit Define American, which has chapters located nationwide.

He also shares how "allies" in Mountain View and surrounding communities provided him crucial support to overcome many of the obstacles he faced. Vargas recounts going to Peet's Coffee in Los Altos to meet venture capitalist Jim Strand, who awarded him a grant that paid Vargas' way through San Francisco State University.

"I wanted to write a manifesto about global migration. I wanted to understand what the cost has been of all of the lying and passing and hiding," writes Vargas, who dedicated his book to the 253 million migrants in the world. "I didn't realize that I had spent 14 years of my life, from 16 to the age of 30, hiding from the government. I didn't realize what that actually meant — that I was actually hiding from myself, from the relationship I was having with people. ... This book is the closest thing I have to feeling like I'm free in a country in which I'm not."

Tara Madhav is a former Weekly intern.

Associate Editor Linda Taaffe contributed to this article

Read a Q&A with Vargas here.

What: Jose Antonio Vargas in conversation with Sabaa Tahir.

Where: Kepler's Literary Foundation at Aragon High School Theatre, 900 Alameda de las Pulgas, San Mateo.

When: Sept. 29.


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Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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