Students constantly identify themselves with certain labels: I am a junior. I am an engineering major. I am a procrastinator. I am a Delta Gama. I am a football player. I am a student.
Rarely is the label, ‘I am an American’ tossed around. However, as Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas explained Wednesday night, this label is desperately sought after by millions of people across the country.
“I am undocumented,” Vargas said, who publicly came out as an undocumented immigrant in June 2011 when he agreed to let a New York magazine run an article about his illegal status. A year later, Vargas published an essay in Time explaining, in detail, his stance on immigration. He since founded Define American, a campaign to promote issues surrounding immigration, and established himself as a central figure in the fight for immigration reform.
Hosted by the Cultural Events Board, Vargas held the attention of students, professors and community members who crowded the Glen Miller Ballroom. He spoke about his experiences in the U.S. living under the title of illegal immigrant.
“Something goes terribly wrong when you refer to a human being as ‘illegal,'” Vargas said. “No human is illegal. To call someone that is to rob them of their humanity.”
Born in the Philippines, Vargas was sent to the U.S. when he was 12 to live with his grandparents in California. Initially unaware of his own illegal status, Vargas’ worries about being illegal and about being deported didn’t begin until he attempted to obtain a driver’s license when he was a teen.
“When I was 16, I went to the DMV to get a permit.,” he said. “I showed my green card to a woman who worked there and, I remember, she flipped it around twice, lowered herself from her seat and said, ‘This is fake, don’t come back here again.’”
After realizing he lived in, what Vargas calls, “limbo,” he did what he could to blend in and pass as a legal American. This included illegally obtaining a social security card as well as a driver’s license from the state of Oregon.
However, this legal American facade quickly crumbled. Vargas explained that he got tired of being avoided.
“I decided to commit one of the cardinal sins of journalism and insert myself into a story,” Vargas said. “I plopped myself in the middle of one of the most controversial issues in America.”
Vargas announced his immigration status in hopes that his public statement could spark change.
Junior Michele Harry, not only admired Vargas’ bold act, but is inspired by it.
“I think it’s brave, what he did,” Harry said. “You can lose so much doing what he did. I have a lot of friends who are undocumented, and they have to deal with so much drama.”
Sophomore Emmanuel Melgoza, who emigrated from Mexico and recently gained legal documentation, is motivated to create reforms as well.
“I want to go into politics, I want to work to create immigration reforms,” Melgoza said. “I am fortunate enough to have my papers, but my older brother does not. Nobody wants to have to live in the shadows. It’s like walking out the door with a target on your back; you have to be worried.”
Millions of young people have concerns similar to Melgoza and his family. According to Vargas, taking a stand and admitting to being undocumented has made a significant difference in pushing towards immigration reform.
“Undocumented immigrants will only keep coming out,” Vargas said. “They will keep insisting to be seen as Americans. Immigration reform will happen.”
Sophomore Brittany Lewis supported the reform Vargas spoke of.
“I’m definitely pro-immigration,” Lewis said “I do believe there should be some changes in legislation so we can make it an easier process.”
To Vargas, the consequences of immigration reform mean much more than a set of revised laws or filed papers. For him, and millions like him, it affects them personally.
“Christmas is really hard,” he said. “It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve seen my mother, who is still in the Philippines. She can’t come here and I can’t come there. When you ask me what immigration reform is about, that’s it. It’s about a mother, a son – it’s about a family.”
Contact CU Independent Breaking News Editor Kiki Turner at Katherine.firstname.lastname@example.org.