As Congress weighs immigration reform, Vargas put a human face on the issue.
"For all the undocumented immigrants actually sitting here, for the 11 million watching, what do you want to do? What do you want to do with us?" he said to applause. "And to me the most important question, as a student of American history, is this: 'How do you define American? How do you define it?"
In June 2011 Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant detailing his life in a New York Times piece where he admits to using a fake driver's license and social security card to obtain jobs at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Huffington Post, among others. He stepped down from his job as a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post to run the nonprofit Define American. He started his career as a high school intern with the Mountain View Voice.
"I come to you as one of our country's 11 million undocumented immigrants," Vargas said in the speech, which can be seen on YouTube. "Many of us are Americans at heart but without the right papers to show for it. Too often we're treated as abstractions, faceless and nameless, subjects of debate rather than individuals with families, hopes, fears and dreams."
In his testimony, he recalls his drive to be a reporter was partly linked to his immigration status. He recalls thinking, "What if my byline was in the paper? How can they say I don't exist if my name is on newspapers and magazines?"
He recalls one of his earliest memories in America, singing the national anthem at Mountain View's Crittenden Middle School at age 13, though he said he was a little unclear on the lyrics. "I thought it said, 'Jose, can you see?'"
Vargas mentions that sitting in the audience at the hearing are the former Mountain View High School administrators who "encouraged and protected" him over the years, Pat Hyland and Rich Fischer, as well as Jim Strand, the man who for years had anonymously funded a scholarship that he received.
Vargas' 75-year-old grandmother was also in the audience, Leonila Salinas, whom he calls his "Lola." In a recent New York times opinion piece, Vargas writes, "At least once a day these past few months, Lola calls me and says, 'Malapit na ba?' Translation: 'Is it close?' That's her way of asking me if immigration reform is close to happening. She wants to know if I will ever have a solid status in this country, if I'll be able to, among so many other things, go on vacation with her to the Philippines and — most important — come back home to the United States. "
In his testimony, Vargas notes that "I am the only one in my extended family of 25 Americans who is undocumented. When you inaccurately call me illegal, you are not only dehumanizing me, you are offending them."
He blames rules against grandparents being able to petition for their grandchildren's green cards as the reason he was not documented when his mother decided to send him to the U.S. He writes that his family "assumed I would find a woman and get my legal residence through marriage. But I came out as gay in high school, which considerably complicated matters," as gay marriage is not recognized by the federal government.