Jose Antonio Vargas asks Northwestern to "define American"
  • Madhuri Sathish/North by Northwestern
  • Madhuri Sathish/North by Northwestern
  • Madhuri Sathish/North by Northwestern
  • Madhuri Sathish/North by Northwestern

Jose Antonio Vargas challenges people to question the definition of “American.”

“To me, defining American means claiming the word American,” Vargas said. “One of the greatest ironies of being undocumented is knowing your life is limited by pieces of paper, all the while knowing that your life is more than a piece of paper.”

Vargas spoke at a College Democrats-sponsored event Wednesday. Vargas, a journalist and activist, wrote a column in The New York Times Magazine in 2011, where he told his story of his experiences as an undocumented immigrant. He also founded an immigration advocacy group called Define American and directed a documentary called “Documented.”

Vargas talked about his experiences as a journalist, an activist and an undocumented immigrant.

“We are living in the golden age of storytelling and this idea of people coming out,” Vargas said.  “It’s not just people coming out, it’s people letting you in.”

“I had to come out twice,” he added, referring to coming out as gay and coming out as undocumented.

Vargas recalled in 2009, watching videos of youth coming out as undocumented immigrants on YouTube. This was two years before he told the world his story.

“I remember thinking to myself, what are you saying?” Vargas said.  “What do you mean that you’re undocumented and you’re unafraid and you’re unapologetic?  That’s what I thought – in 2009.  As early as 2006 or 2007, young undocumented people started uploading videos about coming out.”

During his speech, Vargas showed a clip of a public service announcement he helped direct, featuring undocumented immigrants reciting the pledge of allegiance. He said that the politics of immigration cannot be changed until the culture of immigration is changed.

“So long as we keep calling kids, even children illegal, so long as people obsess over the border and not examine the border in our minds, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Vargas said.

Vargas said that people and the media often portray undocumented immigrants as aliens taking jobs and money, but in fact, the social security administration estimates that unauthorized workers have paid about $100 billion into the fund over the past decade. 

To add to that, since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government has invested more than $100 billion in border and immigration control.

In addition, Vargas pointed out two issues that affect undocumented immigrants: education and driver’s licenses.  

Only 20 states offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  

Although undocumented students still face many hurdles in college education, Vargas said the DREAM Act has given students some more opportunities.

“You now have the opportunity to be connected,” Vargas said. “You have the opportunity to be more documented.”

Furthermore, only 10 states provide driver’s license to undocumented immigrants, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

“As everyone tries to make up their minds on immigration reform, should we at least take care of this?” Vargas said. “You know we’re here.  You know we’re working.  Since the founding of this country, immigrants came to this country to work.”

After his speech, Vargas answered questions on the audience, where he talked about race relations and intersectional identities. He recalled when he was arrested in Texas last summer and being in the same jail cell as undocumented minors.

“They were mostly 8 to 12 year old boys,” Vargas said.  “For me, being in that jail cell with those kids, it really solidified with me what race has to do with that conversation? What if they were white? … But they’re a bunch of brown kids.  Who cares?”

He also talked about his homosexual identity.

“I’ve gotten some criticism from LGBT activists who don’t think I’m being gay enough,” Vargas said. “I started thinking, most of the LGBTQ movement, the framing of it, the funding of it, has been mostly white LGBTQ people.  If you’re LGBTQ and a person of color, there’s a lot of other things to worry about.”

Vargas addressed some criticisms from media outlets he had faced on covering the issue of immigration as an undocumented immigrant himself. But he disagreed, touching on his different identities, saying, “Do all those things disqualify me from covering these issues?” Vargas said. “What if we told white heterosexual guys that white guys have a bias? Who gets to decide that? All those statistics and figures, those are all facts that we rarely hear about.”

Many students who attended the event had followed his work, especially since his column in 2011.

“He does have an incredible life story,” said Weinberg junior Quentin Heilbroner, president of College Democrats. “He’s changing the way we talk about immigration. It’s fantastic to see someone drive the dialogue like that.”

Some students, like Medill sophomore Daisy Villegas, were also drawn to the event because it was an issue that has affected their family or friends.

“He told the story behind those immigrants and about what it means to be undocumented,” Villegas said. “He did a really outstanding job telling the stories of these people.”

Now, Vargas is working on various projects, including the Untitled Whiteness Project and launching a multimedia venture called #EmergingUS to explore race and the changing American identity. 

“The fact that most people don’t realize that many of these people are Asian or Pacific Islanders shows how myopic the media coverage’s been,” Vargas said. “It has also antagonized immigrants who are Latinos. Just because they’re brown, people assume they’re not from here, even if they may be citizens.”

“Now is the time to create our own institutions, to insist on our own stories and telling our own stories,” Vargas said. “I think it’s important for straight white guys to realize it’s almost over. The world is only going to get browner, blacker, more Asian, gayer, and women are breaking barriers.”


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