Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas at Bowdoin: Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

Sociology professor Marcos Lopez, Jose Antonio Vargas, and Student Activities director Nate Hintze. Student Activities and the Office of Stewardship Programs invited Vargas to Bowdoin to give a talk, “Define American: My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” on March 1 in Kresge Auditorium.

In his relaxed, funny, and chatty way, reporter and activist Jose Antonio Vargas last week conveyed serious messages about immigration, race, and history to students, both in a class session he attended and in an evening lecture. He spoke about the past year being one of the darkest in US history for immigrants, dangerous enough for people like him that his lawyers have advised him to no longer keep a permanent address.

Despite his unauthorized status, Vargas said by being out about his status, by speaking out and engaging in the national conversation, he is doing what immigrants have always done — be part of life here. He read from a Feb. 28, 2017, Washington Post editorial he wrote about attending President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress: “We show up. Despite the obvious risks and palpable fear, we show up to work, to school, to church, to our communities, in big cities and rural towns. We show up and we participate.” And, he added, “we help make America great.”

Vargas, at the invitation of Student Activities and the Office of Stewardship Programs, was on campus to give the annual Kenneth V. Santagata lecture. Before his talk,Vargas dropped into one of Assistant Professor of Sociology Marcos Lopez’s classes, Immigration and the Politics of Exclusion, for a 90-minute Q&A session.

After Vargas visited his class, Lopez noted that “Jose Antonio Vargas reminds us that immigration is not simply a Mexican issue, or even a Latino issue. Immigration laws transcend the lives of migrants ranging from nations in the Middle East and Africa to East Asia and Europe as well. He successfully expressed in his talk how stalled conversations among lawmakers in DC have deferred the dreams of undocumented migrants in the US.”

Vargas, who came to the US from the Philippines at age 12, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker who has written for The Washington Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker. He is the 37-year-old founder of Define American, a non-profit seeking to elevate the conversation around immigration and citizenship in America. Among other activities, Define American shares the stories of undocumented immigrants, teaches people their rights, and helps set up college chapters.

At his Thursday evening lecture, Vargas emphasized the need to reform language around immigration. “No [person] is illegal,” he said. He also favors “family” over “chain” migration. Vargas suggested that while national discussion on immigration often focuses on race and criminality, a central question is often overlooked. “Why do people move?” he asked. They move, he answered, to be close to their families, to take care of their families. But he has not seen his mother since he immigrated to the United States from the Philippines 25 years ago. She cannot visit, even with a tourist visa, because she owns no property and doesn’t have a college degree.

“I hope that all of these young people — from all backgrounds — understand that the question right now is, what are we willing to build together? It is not about who is right. It is about what are we willing to build together.”
—Jose Antonio Vargas at Bowdoin, March 1, 2018

To Lopez’s students, Vargas explained that one of the greatest barriers to fixing immigration in the U.S. is that most citizens don’t have a clear understanding of the the issue or the people affected. “The biggest block is most people don’t know what it is,” and perhaps more critically, they personally don’t know anyone who is an undocumented immigrant. Partly that’s because many paperless people here are concentrated in big cities in about 20 states. And even if you do live next door to an undocumented immigrant, it is unlikely your neighbor is open about their status.

So into this silence, it has been easy for people with an anti-immigrant agenda to push “propaganda and lies,” Vargas said. “I’m curious about how deep the dehumanization of this issue has become,” he added. One of the most insidious lies, he noted, is that immigrants are crowding communities’ schools and hospitals, and living off of welfare.

Instead, Vargas said that undocumented workers in the past decade have contributed $1 billion into the social security fund, using their fake papers and invalid social security numbers. “Is that a fact you have ever heard anyone saying?” he asked. “We are paying into a system we get no benefit from and providing for the security of people who don’t want us here.”

Some of Vargas’s inspiration for his activism comes from the LGBT’s coming out movement, which helped humanize gays, lesbians, and transgender people in the eyes of those who had misconceptions or fears about them. And this in turn helped the LGBT community acquire rights and protections under the law.

But even while Vargas is “out,” and comfortable identifying as both gay and undocumented, he said he wishes he could simply identify as a human being. “I want to hold up my human being flag, and say…I’m entitled to have a home. I’m entitled to see my mom again. I’m entitled to feel safe.’ That is where I want to move the conversation.”

Additionally, he said he draws lessons from the civil rights movement, and “the history of resistance.” “I was so lucky that in college [at San Francisco State University] I majored in African-American Studies. It helped me prepare for this,” he said.

Among several writers he named, Vargas mentioned that his two top literary idols were Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. “Baldwin was, for me, a bridge builder,” he said. “He was about figuring out how to look at an issue outside of your point of view, and how to figure out where people who are attacking you are coming from.”

In discussing Baldwin and telling his own stories, Vargas reinforced his point that by trying to understand where others have come from and what they believe, mistrustful groups might find common ground. “You can’t expect to be seen if you’re not willing to see other people,” he said. He underlined his argument by referring to the new blockbuster Marvel superhero movie, Black Panther.

“At the end of the film, they talk about how the power is going to be measured by how many bridges people build — this idea of we don’t build walls, we build bridges,” he said. “And I think we really need to insist on that at a time when it is much easier for people to surround yourself with others who agree with you, who agree with all the words you use, your point of view, and your prism.”

“And it is much harder to hold spaces with people who challenge you,” he continued. “I hope that all of these young people — from all backgrounds — understand that the question right now is, what are we willing to build together? It is not about who is right. It is about what are we willing to build together.”

 

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