Undocumented Journalist Brings Immigration Issues to the Classroom

By Liana Loewus — November 22, 2014 3 min read
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In a speech here Saturday, Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times in 2011, praised the many educators who are “allies” to undocumented students and announced the release of a high school curriculum tackling immigration issues.

The speech came two days after President Obama announced an executive order that would protect 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States from deportation.

Vargas, who was born in the Philippines, told a ballroom full of educators at the National Council for the Social Studies conference Nov. 22 the story of how he was sent to live with his grandfather in Mountain View, Calif., in 1993. Four years later, while trying to get his driver’s license at age 16, he discovered that his documentation papers were fake. As he
explained, he divulged his status to his high school principal and his superintendent, who helped find a private donor to put him through college. Vargas later got a job at The Washington Post, where his reporting team won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.

In 2011, Vargas wrote a piece in the Times declaring himself undocumented and telling his immigration story. “When I outed myself as undocumented, I wasn’t the only person I outed,” he told the NCSS attendees, referring to the educators who had kept his secret.

“Whenever we think about this issue, how many times do we talk about you?” he said to the teachers in the crowd. “How many times do we talk about these allies that the media doesn’t cover? ... They don’t think you’re a part of it, but you are a part of it.”

Teaching ‘Documented’

Vargas made a documentary about his experience called “Documented,” aired by CNN in June (it’s now available on iTunes and Netflix). During the speech, he announced the release of an accompanying curriculum for 11th and 12th grade classrooms, which those who purchase the DVD will receive. “This currriculum is something you all can use,” he said. “We tried as much as possible to really get out of this political framework and make it a human story.”

The curriculum was designed to be aligned with the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts and with Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-Bias Framework Standards, which address multicultural and social-justice issues.

Vargas has also founded a campaign called Define American to stir conversations about immigration and identity.

During the speech, Vargas said that reading Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in a high school history class had been a particularly formative experience. When the letter speaks of unjust laws, it became “really, really personal,” he said.

“This is where for me the role of social studies [comes in]. You don’t really pay attention to history until you’re called upon to realize your role in it.”

‘I’ve Been Here’

In describing his feelings on the president’s new executive order, Vargas said:

I feel like we all live in the same house, whether we like it or not, the same big house, and I feel like the government came into my room and turned on the lights and said, “Hey, you’re there.” And I look back and I’m like, “Yeah, dude, I’ve been here, it’s just been really dark.”

Then there’s been all these people—my high school principal, my high school superintendent, my choir teacher, my history teacher—who have been holding these candles to just keep the light on.

After the speech, NCSS President Michelle Herczog gave Vargas the group’s Spirit of America Award for his contributions to “the spirit of American democracy.”

On accepting the plaque, Vargas said, “This is going to go to Mountain View High School, where I come from, and it belongs to all my teachers.”

Jose Antonio Vargas delivers a keynote address at the National Council for the Social Studies conference Nov. 22. —Liana Heitin for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.