ON LEADING PODCAST • Episode #14 • January 17, 2024

Listen on

Episode #14

Jose Antonio Vargas

On Being Undocumented

By Lori Brewer Collins

“Journalism is religion to me. In terms of being an identity, it’s probably the identity that I wear the most, more than being undocumented or more than being gay or more than being Filipino. It’s the way I think. It’s the way I’m built. So when I came out, the big question was how do I do this in such a way that other people could actually benefit from it, so then the risk would be worth it.” —Jose Antonio Vargas

Take a listen to this multi-gifted journalist, documentarian, author, Broadway play producer, and founder of the non-profit, Define American. As (arguably) the most famous undocumented person in the US, Jose movingly describes his journey of becoming, and his quest to be officially acknowledged by this country he loves. A quest to belong. His stories wend a tale of highs and lows, and the myriad lessons he’s learned along the way.

Key Takeaways

  1. We should ALL be activists. We don’t need the label of activist to speak up, to take action. All of us should be activists.
  2. Stay true to your creative potential. There are many avenues available for exploring and expressing your voice.
  3. Immigration is a replenishment, not a replacement. Our demographics are in constant flux and where immigrants are foundational to the systems that allow our country to function. That’s always been the case. Immigrants of today look much different than they did in decades past, but the role they play in our society remains unchanged.
  4. Face your greatest fear – liberation is on the other side. Looking head on to what is most at risk in your life and reconciling yourself to what the most dire consequences could be is a pathway of liberation to your truest self.
  5. Recognize the fullness of who we are as people. We can choose to see a broader, more complete version of who we are individually, and collectively. The world would be a gentler, kinder, more abundant place if we enlarged our view of ourselves and of each other.


Jose is an accomplished journalist, filmmaker, and human rights activist. Born in the Philippines, his parents sent him to the US at age 12 to live with his grandparents. He only discovered he was undocumented when he applied for a driver’s license at age sixteen. He lived under the shadow of this reality for decades.

He chose to come out as undocumented in 2011. And he discovered a community of supporters ready to engage in a broader dialogue. He founded Define American, a 501(c)3, to foster that dialogue and explore what it really means to “be an American.” Co-founded with Jake Brewer, my late son, as well as MSNBC’s Alicia Menendez and political analyst Jehmu Greene, Define American brings fresh perspectives to how we view immigration, citizenship, and our understanding of the complex, overlapping factors that inform our national conversation, as well as what’s at stake in order to fix our broken system.

Posted in ,