Amid intense nationwide debate over immigration policies, a California school board is naming a new elementary school after an undocumented immigrant.
The school in Mountain View, Californnia, will now hold the name of Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who came to the United States from the Philippines in 1993 when he was 12.
“I don’t really have words for how meaningful this honor is, I’ve been speechless for a few days,” Vargas, 37, told CNN. “I hope that this is a school where students and their families feel welcome in America, no matter where they come from.”
The goal is for the school near San Jose to open for grades K-5 in 2019, according to Mountain View Whisman School District documents.
The school board approved the naming last week after Vargas was one of five people whose names were suggested for the new school by members of the community.
Laura Blakely, president of the school board, told CNN the district was looking to name the school after someone who embodied the value of education.
“He’s just a really inspirational leader,” Blakely said of Vargas. “If [students] hear Jose’s story, we hope it will empower them to focus on their education, work hard and make a difference in the world.”
Blakely said the district includes families from all over the world, from Latin America to Europe to Asia.
“The students see their story in his story,” she said.
As a product of the district’s schools, Vargas said he was overwhelmed by “this totally unexpected and deeply meaningful honor.”
“I think every undocumented immigrant in this country wherever you are … from the big regions to the small towns, we’re defined by our communities. I grew up in that community. This feels so special,” he said.
While the award was an honor to him, some have taken to social media to express their anger that “an illegal immigrant’s” name is on a school. One person posting on the Twitter account of Vargas’ organization referred to him as “a cheat and a liar.”
‘Most misunderstood issue in American society’
Vargas wrote in a 2011 New York Times Magazine column that his grandfather had paid $4,500 for a pretend “uncle” — who was a coyote, or people smuggler — to bring Vargas to the United States under a fake passport and name.
Vargas remains an undocumented immigrant who received a notice to appear before a judge after being detained in 2014. However, he says the notice was never filed and no action resulted.
“So basically, like the 11 million immigrants in this country, I am in limbo land,” he said.
Vargas also said he’s been openly vocal about what it means to be undocumented and that immigration is the “most misunderstood issue in American society.” Part of that misunderstanding, he says, is what led to the misuse of the word “illegal.”
“It’s inhumane for news organizations to call these kids and their parents illegal,” he said. Branding people “illegal,” he says, makes them seem less than human.
Vargas said he found it interesting that some of the over 1,000 immigrant children being detained in Texas are the same age as the children who would attend the school with his name.
“Those kids are being locked up right now because we actually don’t think they deserve humanity,” he said. “The kids locked up in cages should be in classrooms, not detention centers, not locked up like livestock.”
In 2011, Vargas founded the nonprofit media and culture organization Define American. According to its website, the organization “uses the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America.”
CNN aired details of Vargas’ life story in the 2014 film “Documented,” which he wrote and directed about the U.S. immigration debate.
Vargas has also written for numerous publications as a journalist, including The New Yorker. He worked for Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. He was part of the The Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for its breaking news coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre.