Leeds School of Business
Jose Antonio Vargas (Courtesy: Flickr/Alan Levine)

Jose Antonio Vargas speaks up for the undocumented

Undocumented immigrants are a valuable part of America and deserve to have a pathway to citizenship, Jose Antonio Vargas said in a talk Wednesday evening.

Vagras, who spoke at CU’s Conference on World Affairs last year, gave his lecture, “My Life as an Undocumented American” in the UMC through the Cultural Events Board. A journalist and immigration rights activist, Vargas founded Define American, an organization that attempts to harness the media to shift the conversation about immigration. He also wrote for publications including the New Yorker, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post, winning a Pulitzer for the latter’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

“It’s just a plaque, I’d rather have a green card,” he joked about his Pulitzer.

Despite all of his activism, Vargas said he almost didn’t come to the talk at CU. Since President Donald Trump took office, Vargas said his lawyers advised him not to fly and to remain in the state of California, where he lives in Los Angeles. Vargas took their advice for a while. He said he decided to continue to fly after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi invited him to attend as her guest to Trump’s first address to Congress.

“I have lived way too long to give into fear,” Vargas said to applause.

Vargas spoke about his work and his life story throughout the lecture, explaining how he came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 12 to live with his grandparents, who are U.S. citizens. Vargas’ grandparents forged several of his papers in order to get him into the country. He did not find out that he was undocumented until he was 16 and tried to get a driver’s license.

The new knowledge was hard for him, Vargas said, and he struggled keeping it a secret from everyone around him. To make matters more difficult, around this same time, he began to realize he was gay. He said having to stay in “two closets at once” was too difficult, so he decided to come out as gay. He cited Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out on the cover of Time magazine in 1997 as what gave him inspiration.

Vargas went on to write for the Washington Post, where he only told one person he was an undocumented immigrant. After keeping his status a secret for years, he decided to “come out” a second time — this time as an undocumented immigrant.

Against the advice of 27 immigration lawyers, Vargas came out as undocumented in an essay in the New York Times Magazine in 2011. After it was published, Vargas said he waited fearfully for immigration officials to come to his door, but nothing happened. So, in 2012, Vargas published a second article, this time on the cover of Time, that featured 32 undocumented immigrants from different backgrounds. He described the article as the proudest moment in his career.

Along with his journalism work, Vargas spoke about his work at Define American, which included lobbying news outlets to stop using terminology such as “illegal immigrant.” This campaign was successful in causing the Associated Press to remove the terminology from their style guide in 2013. He also spoke about the importance of allies showing up for immigrants and being vocal about their support.

Vargas said it was hard for him to accept that he might never become an American citizen, and he rejected the way immigrants are required to “prove” their right to be Americans in a way natural-born citizens never are.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m already an American — I’m just waiting for my own country to recognize me,” he said to finish his talk.

The lecture ended with a Q&A session, where Vargas talked with audience members, many of them immigrants, about strategies for navigating the immigration system, local activism and ways to combat anti-immigrant sentiment. Vargas stressed the importance of education and reaching out to people who aren’t knowledgeable about things like the deferred action for childhood arrivals program and the immigration system. He cited resources on Define American as a first step.

Sophomore ‘Ilima Umbhau also announced her plan to start a Define American student chapter at CU.

“I’m really hoping to see this be a platform for students who need a space to speak, and I hope it’ll open up the conversation on our campus in a safe and effective way,” Umbhau said.

Contact CU Independent copy editor Carina Julig at carina.julig@colorado.edu.

About Carina Julig

Carina Julig is a SoCal native in her first year at CU. She is majoring in journalism and political science, and minoring in space. She is a copy editor and news writer for the CU Independent, and you can follow her on twitter at @CarinaJulig.

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