Jose Antonio Vargas Talks The Single Case That Could Shift Obama's Legacy
Monday marked the beginning of oral arguments in United States v. Texas, a potentially landmark case in which the court is aiming to determine the constitutionality of Obama's 2014 executive actions to expand Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and to create Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) — as well as the legality of Texas' decision to sue the federal government to stop DAPA. These executive actions, which Texas and 25 other states are attempting to challenge in this case, would defer the deportation of approximately four million undocumented immigrants. In the midst of crowdfunding for his new digital media platform, #EmergingUS, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and immigrant rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas was inside the courtroom during the oral arguments, and his story was included in the amicus brief that was reviewed by the court on Monday.
The amicus brief describes 34-year-old Vargas' arrival to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993, and his discovery at age 16 that he was undocumented following an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a driver's license. Vargas missed the deadline for the original DACA program by four months, but he would qualify under this executive action to expand DACA and be able to visit his mother in the Philippines for the first time in over two decades.
In a phone interview with Bustle, Vargas said that he saw this case as inevitable, explaining that he feels "like it's time for undocumented immigrants to get our day in court." He said that this case also has the potential to shift Obama's legacy. The current administration has deported more people than any previous, resulting in the president being described as the "deporter-in-chief."
On an even more personal level, if the court rules in favor of undocumented immigrants and the federal government, then Vargas would be able to stay in the U.S. and continue his successful career. #EmergingUS — which Vargas says is the first media platform to his knowledge to be owned by an undocumented immigrant — is "a digital platform that lives at the intersection of race, immigration, and identity in a multicultural America," according to its official Facebook page.
Immigration is not happening in a vacuum. It's connected to other issues, like LGBT rights, women's rights, #BlackLivesMatter. The goal of #EmergingUS is to tell the stories of the emerging America, and immigrants are at the heart of that emerging America ... For me, it's just surreal that both these things are happening at once. One of the reasons I think this Supreme Court case is important is it's arguably one of the most important immigration cases before the Supreme Court ever. I hope they rule in our favor because I want to keep building #EmergingUS and I want to hire more people to work on it. My contribution to this country has been my journalism, which I've been doing since I was in high school.
Vargas also said that it's time for more people of color to own media companies, in order to expand diversity not only within newsrooms but also in ownership. In an election year that has seen increasingly heated discussions of immigration — including debates around this Supreme Court case — Vargas said that #EmergingUS can connect the stories of immigrants to what other Americans are going through. This intersectional editorial process therefore necessitates a reevaluation of the ways in which media organizations report on marginalization.
"Those in the margins are moving to the center," Vargas explained. "We're not the counter-narrative; we're actually the narrative."
"Our experiences in this country are not centered ... We have been groundbreaking. That to me has not been happening in the media. Far too many stories have been told from the perspective of white people — specifically, the straight white males who still control most newsrooms. And again, that hurts all of us."
Even as Vargas advocates for himself and other immigrants in this country, he continuously comes up against folks who attack him for staying in this country "illegally," and who don't recognize the difficulties — often impossibilities — that accompany possible paths to citizenship. This labor is obviously not easy, but Vargas has invested himself in more nuanced storytelling, which would shed light on the stories of millions of Americans.
As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for United States v. Texas on Monday, efforts to crowdfund $1 million for #EmergingUS came to a close after almost 1,000 backers pledged $567,520 in two months, and #EmergingUS supporters can continue to donate online. The outcome of United States v. Texas could dramatically impact the lives and futures of millions of Americans. But no matter what happens, Vargas won't be giving up on this fight any time soon. "We need to create new institutions, and #EmergingUS is one of them," he told Bustle.
"I find a lot of liberation in storytelling," he concluded. "I find a lot of peace in knowing that in telling people's stories, we connect people. But one thing that I think is difficult is the toll that it takes, because the mental and emotional toll comes with the territory. It's not easy. In newsrooms that are predominantly white, you always have to fight for these stories. You have to make sure that they're told in the right way and that they're framed in the right way. For me it's exciting to be able to kind of center experience, instead of always just fighting for it to be at the center."