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Pulitzer Prize Winner Jose Antonio Vargas Talks Race, Immigration, Politics

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas giving a lecture while holding California drivers license in this undated photo.
Michael Conti
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas giving a lecture while holding California drivers license in this undated photo.
Pulitzer Prize Winner Jose Antonio Vargas Talks Race, Immigration, Politics
Jose Antonio Vargas Discusses Race, Immigration, Politics GUEST: Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

This is KPBS Midday Edition and I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Journalist and documentary filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas cited to stop lying about his immigration status in 2011. He was born in the Philippines and raged in the United States since the age of 12 he was not a legal citizen. He managed to become a legal journalist with the New York Post when he revealed his undocumented status. Farkas has remain in the US and as the 2016 presidential race unfolds, Vargas has launched a new venture. A digital news platform to explore what he calls the evolving American identity. I spoke with Jose Antonio Vargas during his speaking tour in San Diego. Here's an interview. Welcome. Thank you for having me. Did you have been public about your immigration status, have even threatened with deportation I got arrested in Texas two summers ago. This was during the Central American crisis. I ended up getting detained after trying to leave the airport in Texas. But I was only detained for about eight hours here then the White House decided that they did not want me staying in detention so they got me out. So you think this indeed was actually coming from the White House? Somebody made a decision, it was not my decision, to get me out of jail. Did you consider at any point sort of trying to shrink back in and dashed into anonymity after you publicly announced instead of maintaining the public profile? No, I think once I made the decision, I was pretty aware, especially given the fact that I'm a journalist, that there is no going back. Is just a matter of how productive I could be. It has been a fascinating process in terms of I get called a lot of names. I'm called activists, illegal alien, a lot of terms. I really has stayed pretty grounded in terms of what I do. I write and I make films. I have made two documentaries in the past five years. I am starting a new journalism project, a new media startup called #EmergingUS . I have stayed as busy as possible while being very public about my status. Tell us about #EmergingUS, what is that all about ? To me there is an emerging American identity that most of the media does not cover it all. Just look at the Nevada caucuses to the Democratic Party, Asian voters not exist? If not a part of their equation. We talk about race in America, specifically East Coast organizations. I think for the most part, the way we talk about race in this country is very black and white and very updated here in California, Latinos and Asians are the two fastest growing groups in California 51% of all Californians. In Los Angeles -- of all Californians are Latino. Why are we stuck it up like my conversation in the country has moved on? What is the responsibility of news outlets to cover what this demographic -- demographic change is all about and what it means. #EmergingUS is all about that. Instead of getting investors nested in a corporate media conglomerate entity, we decided to be independent. We're going to go to the crowd and raise $1 million. This is something that has never been done in crowdfunding for journalism. We have raised about $100,000 already and we have a few more thousand to go [ Laughter ] And we have until April 18. Because every donation you give is doubled. Is doubled by -- it is doubled by Beacon which is the journalism kick starter. Hausa possible that you cannot work in the US but you can own your own company? In this country president Obama has deported more than 2 million immigrants in the past seven years. Why is the Department of Homeland Security so busy trying to deport us while the IRS, if you go to the IRS website, they talk about a TIN number where undocumented workers pay taxes. Why is the -- why isn't the IRS talking to Homeland Security? While you are in San Diego and you are talking to young voters about race, privilege and immigration what are some the things that you are hearing from college students ask -- Hearing from college students? I am undocumented and I cannot vote. I get very frustrated and surprised and disappointed when I hear people especially young people who are American citizens who can't vote, who are not even register to vote their -- to vote. Do they not realize the price they paid as US citizens to have the right to vote? I am surprised by that. In traveling around the country for the past five years now, I have traveled in 47 states in the last five years discussing the issue. I have realized that I lot of young white people don't know where they are from. They do not know their own immigration background. Meaning, I remember being at the University of Georgia in Athens about three and half years ago, and I asked the young man, I am so used to be asking where I am from, I think people of color always get asked where they are from. So I think it's important to ask white people where they are from. I asked him, where are you from? And he said American. I said no, where are you from? He said I'm white so I said white is not a country I wanted to know if he's Italian, Irish, do they know the history? Donald Trump's grandfather was German. And the young man said he did not know. How can you not know? Not knowing itself is a privilege to not have to know. Every Latino and every Asian in this country has that story. And every white person of this country whether or not they know it has that story. Again this question of not knowing, African-Americans, the forced migration of slavery. Is a really important question to understand issue in a much more personal way. Imagine Donald Trump there has been a lot of talk -- you mentioned Donald Trump there's been a lot of talk about immigration on the political road. I see this from the prism of being a journalism -- a journalist or fax our religion. I see someone who is an undocumented -- I see it as someone who is an undocumented immigrant. Failure and general failure of the media to report the facts and contextualize this issue is bordering on criminal. That is as far as I'm concerned. Considering how much we talk about this issue, it is so irresponsible how little public actually knows what the processes for someone to get documented, and what the facts are in terms of the undocumented population of this country. Must talk about Texas that this is a super Tuesday states, there are 1.7 on million people -- their 1.7 million on documented people in its population. Half of the construction workers in Texas are undocumented. Wherewith the Texas economy be without undocumented workers? Then again, instead of talking about what they actually contribute in terms of Social Security and taxes what is the narrative? The narrative is take take take take take the welfare because all this trouble, the facts are not there to bear that out. And yet the media, I have heard Marco Rubio say at the debate on CNN, the last debate that they just had, on meet the press with Chuck Todd, Marco Rubio says illegal immigration has been the worst in the past five years. Study after study for the center for migration study said this is the lowest number of undocumented people in America since 2003. Why can't we call them out when they say that? When a candidate say something that is factually wrong? I am speaking with journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and he is talking to us about many things including his new project called #EmergingUS. José said a little while ago, we're not keeping up with the reality of what is happening. There are apparently a rather large over of Americans who are not keeping up, they are not happy with the America that is emerging. The changing demographics, the large immigrant population, not happy with that. We see a lot of that going to the polls and voting their unhappiness about this. How do you understand that resistance? I try to understand it from a place of empathy. Especially as someone who has done quite a few tea party event and Republican events across the country and in the South and in the Midwest, Alabama, Ohio, Texas. This country is undergoing a dramatic demographic shift unlike anything we have ever seen in the 1960s the country was 85% white and 10% black. Now, 88% of the total population growth in America in the next 50 years will come from Latinos and Asians. 88%. Now here in California where we have the privilege of knowing what that looks like and what it feels like, it feels really good. We have a lot of good food. [ Laughter ] Cultural richness. In the state of California white Americans have gotten used to the fact that they are part of the minority. There isn't a true majority. We are all the majority. For the rest of the country that is not a reality yet. Look, the American people, especially white working-class Americans, postpones have got decimated because of manufacturing plants in jobs that have left, they want someone to blame. They are angry. And they think that people who are to blame are us. Is important for journalists to explain what is happening and figure out how we can connect people and create spaces for empathy while actually reporting facts. And reporting context. Unfortunately for the most part that is not happening. Just what we are doing right now is rare. We're having an actual conversation so much of the political media that comes this campaign does not want to have a conversation is all like we are on a grid and we all fit in a box and we do our box and we're done. José, when you went public, when he first went public with your undocumented status, it look like there might be some movement in Washington on immigration reform. Now the national dialogue is about building a taller stronger wall. How do you think we got to this point? We got to this point because before we get to that point of actually getting to a solution, I think in many ways, I am not surprised by Donald Trump's rise. After all my travel across the country I am not at all surprised in many ways, I think Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the opposite side of the same coin. I think this idea of an America that is changing, an America that is never going to be white. This is very scary for a lot of people. In the toxicity in which we talk about immigration cannot really be divorced from how we talk about race and how we talk about identity. It is fastening sometimes to hear some of the candidates talk about the immigration and you see the flooring of the lines between illegal immigration and illegal immigration. Some people do it anyone to come at all. So that's not surprising to me. To me what is troublesome is, how do we make sure that we are actually hearing and seeing each other. I feel like especially in this age of social media, you only talk to people who really agree with you. You are looking for people who are friends with you on Facebook, how many have you defriended because of plaque lies matter or Donald Trump? I force myself all the time to get uncomfortable. I force myself to go to places where I will feel like I have to explain myself. I'm afraid that our conversations about race and immigration are way too comfortable. They are way too self-referential and way too easy and circular. I don't want to live in a country when people think of the Republican Party they think anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-women. That hurts our democracy. We need to function parties if not more.[ Laughter ] So that we can actually have a conversation about issues. Progress should not have a party. That's why when it comes to immigrant rights, this should be a Democratic issue. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton should not be the only two people making sense on this issue. What do we have? We have to Hispanic candidates for president of Cuban descent. They are trying to out trump Trump when it comes to immigration. Sometimes I have to remind myself this is happening for real and it's not sort of onion article that's being played on all of us. You mentioned before that you have been speaking with young people, it boggles your mind that there are people who can vote who will not be exercising it or don't exercise that privilege. To think the issue of immigration and the wider conversation of the emerging America that we haven't talking about, to think that is actually going to energize young people or old people? People of all kinds. To go get out and vote. Just young Latino voters alone could really make the selection. SMI who brought in California in the Pete Wilson era in the proposition 187 that really mobilized and introduced Latino leaders across the country. People wanted to register and vote because of Pete Wilson this is like Pete Wilson times 10. That is what Donald Trump is doing. He may prove to be a gift. He may turn out to be the best organizer of the Latino vote. That may just be Donald Trump. The Asian vote to places like Virginia, Texas, Nevada, Minnesota, sizable Asian populations. That's why was frustrated listening to the Nevada conversation in the caucus. According to entrance polls at least 5% of voters in Nevada for Asian. Mostly Filipino. Hillary Clinton one Nevada by six points. They captivating about the Latino vote will talk about the Asian vote. By sources on the ground directly telling me that because Hillary Clinton actually spoke to the Asian community and in outreach to the Asian community that that is how she one that block. I know that you have been crowdfunding and your crowdfunding now at #EmergingUS , Jose Antonio Vargas thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us Thank you so much for having you. Please go to trap it and help us out. We need to provide a better media for this new America and we need your help to do it. [ Music ] Coming up birds of all varieties should get ready for their close-up. The birders are in town for the San Diego Bird Festival. It is 12:43 PM and you're listening to KPBS Midday Edition . [ Music ]

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-documentary filmmaker and immigration activist. Now he wants to add another title to his resume: publisher.

Vargas, who revealed in 2011 that he's been living in the U.S. illegally since the age of 12, launched a crowdfunding campaign for a new media venture called #EmergingUS. He says the online news organization aims to explore the "evolving American identity."

Vargas spoke KPBS Midday Edition about immigration, race and the presidential race. Here are highlights from that interview.

What is #EmergingUS?

To me, there is an emerging American identity that most of the media does not cover at all. Just look at the Nevada caucus. Do Asian voters just not exist? It’s not even a part of their equation. We talk about race in America, specifically regarding East Coast based on news organizations — I’ve worked in the East Coast for 10 years as a journalist—and for the most part, the way we address race in America is very black and white, and very outdated.

Why are we still stuck in a black and white conversation when the country has already moved on? What is the responsibility of news outlets to cover what this changing demographic means culturally, economically, politically? #EmergingUS is all about that. Instead of getting investors, nested in a corporate media conglomerate entity, we decided to be independent. So we’re going to the crowd to raise one million dollars. This is something that has never been done for crowdfunding in journalism.

You’re in San Diego and you’re talking to young voters about race, privilege and immigration. What are some of the things you’re hearing from college students?

This is going to be a turnout election, right? I’m undocumented, I can’t vote. I always get very frustrated and surprised and disappointed when I hear people — especially young people who are American citizens and can vote — who aren’t even registered to vote. Do they not realize the price that was paid for them to be U.S. citizens? To have this privilege and right to vote? So I’m always surprised by that.

In traveling around the country for the past five years now - I’ve traveled in 47 states in the past five years, talking about this issue - I’ve realized that a lot of young white people don’t know where they’re from. They don’t know their own immigration background.

There’s been a lot of talk about immigration in a lot of different ways on the campaign trail. What have been some of your impressions so far?

I see this from the prism of being a journalist — where facts are to me, a religion — and I see it as someone who is an undocumented immigrant. The general failure of the media to report the facts and contextualize this issue is bordering on criminal. Considering how much we talk about this issue, it is so irresponsible how little the public knows about what the process is for somebody to get documented, and what the facts are in regards to how much of the population is undocumented.

Let’s talk about Texas. There is about 1.7 million undocumented people in the state of Texas — the second largest outside the state of California. Half of construction workers are undocumented. Where would Texas economy be without undocumented workers? And yet, instead of talking about what they contribute, in terms of social security and taxes, what is the narrative? The narrative is that they just take, take, take. They’re the one’s taxing welfare, they’re the ones causing all this trouble. The facts are just not there to bear that out.

And yet the media, I’ve heard Marco Rubio say, on the last CNN debate and on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd, “Illegal immigration has been the worst in the past five years.” Study after study, from the Pew Research Center, from the Center for Migration Studies, have said this is actually the lowest number of undocumented people in America since 2003. Why can’t we call them out when candidates say something factually wrong?

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