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Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas speaks at Elmhurst College
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2013-03-13

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Life as an undocumented immigrant was the theme of a lecture by openly gay journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas March 7 at Elmhurst College's Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel.

Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage (he shared the award with other journalists) of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, Vargas revealed that he was an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine essay, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," in summer 2011.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Vargas came to the United States in 1993 when he was 12 years old. His mother—whom he hasn't seen in 20 years—sent him to live with his grandparents in California to give him a better life. Vargas didn't discover that his green card was fake until he tried to get his learner's permit at the DMV when he was 16 years old. He was turned away for having false documents. From that point, Vargas had to hide his true identity to avoid being deported.

Vargas finished high school and graduated from San Francisco State University—he attended college with the help of a private scholarship—majoring in political science and Black studies. Since graduating from college, Vargas has written for a number of publications, including The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. The daily journal Politico named him one of the "50 Politicos to Watch" in 2007. Currently, Vargas runs Define American, a nonprofit organization that brings new voices to the immigration conversation.

Following words of welcome and an introduction by Venkatesh Gopal, assistant professor of physics at Elmhurst College, Vargas told the approximately 300 attendees that he couldn't believe his name was on the same pamphlet as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. (Vargas and O'Connor are Elmhurst College's Rudolf G. Schade Lecture series speakers this spring.)

Vargas said that he doesn't see himself as an activist or an advocate or a leader because he hasn't earned those distinctions. He does defines himself as a storyteller, filmmaker and writer.

"I think that remembering history is so important when we talk about immigration," said Vargas. He said that between 1892 and 1954 about 12 million undocumented white people came to the United States across the Atlantic Ocean. These individuals, Vargas added, were treated with respect and welcomed into the United States.

Nearly 60 years later, another group of about 12 million undocumented immigrants are being treated in an entirely different manner, Vargas said, adding, "We are dealing with two cornerstone questions. What does U.S. foreign policy and trade agreements such as NAFTA have to do with immigration, and why do we frame immigration as a problem and not an opportunity?"

Since speaking out about his undocumented status Vargas said he receives about 15 to 20 pieces of hate mail every day.

He then told his story beginning with his first impressions of the United States, which included the Nancy Kerrigan incident and the O.J. Simpson trial. Vargas said that was very confusing since he thought of this country in terms of Michael Jackson and Baywatch.

Vargas talked about his attempt to get a learners' permit at the DMV and his grandfather's angry reaction when Vargas went home and asked his grandfather about his documents. During that conversation, Vargas' grandfather told him he was an undocumented immigrant and that he would have to live in the shadows and earn a living through under the table jobs.

When Vargas was 18, he revealed that he was gay to his entire U.S. history class after watching a documentary that included Harvey Milk saying, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." Vargas said that living with two secrets was difficult and since he couldn't reveal that he was undocumented he had to tell people about his sexual orientation.

In order to get hired as a writer, Vargas used a fake Social Security card. He also noted that he got a drivers' license after he researched the laws in each state to determine the best place for someone like him to obtain a license.

Over the years, Vargas thought that if he worked hard enough and achieved enough he would be rewarded with citizenship. Throughout his 20s, Vargas continued to write, interviewing many notable people, while still hiding that he was an undocumented immigrant from all but a few people he trusted.

Vargas said the turning point was when he interviewed Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010 for the New Yorker Magazine. During their conversation, Zuckerberg asked Vargas where he was from. For Vargas, this question brought up many issues. A year later, Vargas decided to tell his story as an undocumented immigrant in the same publication. Since the article was published, Vargas said he is always wondering when he will get deported, however, he is unafraid of what might happen to him.

The United States is changing, Vargas said. "In 21st-century politics diversity is destiny," said Vargas. "I hope you don't take for granted what you have" as legal citizens of the United States, said Vargas.

During the Q&A session, two young women said they were also undocumented immigrants. Vargas thanked the women and said that it is important for allies to advocate on behalf of undocumented immigrants. Responding to other questions, Vargas said that he is more afraid of not seeing this through and that inclusivity and empathy are important when considering the immigration policies of the United States.

In her emotional closing remarks, Annie Werly—editor-in-chief of El Arrendajo Azul, Elmhurst College's multilingual student newspaper—thanked Vargas for speaking at the college. She then revealed that her husband is also an undocumented immigrant.

See www.joseantoniovargas.com and www.defineamerican.com for more information on Vargas and his organization.


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