By Rowena Lindsay, inside editor
“I am here to talk to you about what it means to be an American,” journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas said to the crowd that filled the West Village F auditorium on March 19.
Vargas, who was born in the Philippines, is one of nearly 12 million illegal immigrants or, as he prefers to call the group, “undocumented Americans,” living in the United States. He remained undetected in America for 18 years, graduating both high school and college and working as a journalist for several news organizations including The Washington Post and The Huffington Post before he decided to come out as an undocumented immigrant.
Since making this life-changing decision, Vargas has devoted himself to fighting for the rights of undocumented Americans through Define American, an organization he founded aimed at elevating how people talk about race and immigration.
Vargas’ talk, despite the serious subject matter, was laced with enthusiasm and humor.
He juxtaposed the story of how he came out as undocumented with the story of how he came out as gay in high school – blurting it out in the middle of a class discussion about Harvey Milk and then running out of the room, afraid that his girlfriend would find out.
As for coming out as undocumented, Vargas was inspired by the Undocumented movement on YouTube, in which young people admitted freely that they did not have the papers to be in the United States. He had been hiding for years and seeing these people fearlessly telling the truth about who they were made him feel like a coward.
“I thought if I could just be a successful journalist it wouldn’t matter that I was undocumented, that I could succeed away from that … but then I decided that I would come out again,” Vargas said. “In a 4,000-word essay, against the advice of 17 lawyers, I confessed to everything I did to get by in America, all the lies I had told.”
After the essay was published, he expected to be deported. However, months went by and, despite having a bag packed for the occasion, no one came to tell him he had to leave. So, he decided to write a follow-up article, this time for TIME magazine, about why he had not been deported. Vargas himself and 36 other undocumented Americans from 15 different countries were featured on the cover of the magazine.
In addition to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Vargas is also a documentary filmmaker. His most recent project, “Documented,” details the story of how he came to America and what life has been like for him since discovering that he was undocumented. Vargas used clips from this documentary to accompany several of his talking points throughout the night.
The documentary he is currently working on is called “Untitled Whiteness Project” and is about the white race.
“You can’t have an honest conversation about race without unpacking the word ‘whiteness,’” Vargas said. “My job as a writer and a filmmaker is to traffic in empathy, give everyone their voice. You don’t have to be color blind to be sensitive.”
Much of Vargas’ talk centered on shattering the stereotypes associated with the term “illegal alien.”
“Immigrants have paid $100 billion into social security. That doesn’t fit into the popular image of immigrants, though. We steal your jobs, we crowd your hospitals, we speak Spanish at Walmart,” Vargas said.
With Define American, Vargas made a PSA stating that immigrants are more than stereotypes: they are people. The video, which he played for the audience, depicted a group of immigrants each saying the pledge of allegiance, to prove that, as undocumented Americans, they are saluting a flag that does not salute them in return.
He detailed with apparent pleasure, how both the liberal and conservative media criticized the PSA when it aired. “When you have pissed off both sides that is when you know you have the right product,” he said.
During the question and answer portion of the evening, sophomore psychology major Akira Brown talked about how, as a person of color, she struggled with owning the term American, which lead to a powerful discussion between Vargas and various audience members.
“I heard about the articles he had written about coming out as undocumented and I thought it sounded cool, so I decided to come. I am really glad I came, he was really candid and open, and he is relevant,” Brown said.
The last thing that he discussed was how he responds to questions like “why don’t you just become legal?” or “why don’t you just leave?”
There is no process through which undocumented Americans can legalize themselves, which is one of the many things that Define American hopes to change. As for simply returning to the Philippines, America has been Vargas’ home for 22 years and if he were to leave he would most likely not be allowed back.
“I am here because I think America is worth the fight. I sincerely hope that you do not take your American citizenship for granted,” Vargas said. “Silence is no longer an option and you have to be part of the conversation.”
Photo by Brian Bae