Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who had been working in the U.S. for more than 10 years when he published an essay in the New York Times Magazine revealing his status as an undocumented immigrant, spoke to a full crowd in Metcalf Auditorium Monday night. Vargas discussed the oversimplification of the dialogue surrounding the immigration debate, expressing his confusion at how “one human being (can) call another human being illegal.”
“Actions are illegal, but people are never illegal,” Vargas said, noting that being undocumented is a civil offense not a criminal one.
Vargas’ essay, entitled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” was published in 2011, launching him squarely into the spotlight as a immigration rights activist.
Vargas moved to California from the Philipines in 1993, when he was 12. When he tried to get his driver’s license four years later, he discovered his green card was fake, he said.
Vargas also spoke to the audience about coming out as gay and his grandfather consequently kicking him out of the house. “I came out of one closet because I couldn’t handle being in two at once,” he said. But this meant his best shot at citizenship – marrying a U.S. citizen – was crushed.
“My whole life I have felt and internalized being an outsider,” Vargas said.
During his formative teenage years, a teacher encouraged Vargas to pursue journalism, he told the audience, and in many ways he used the legitimacy of seeing his name in bylines to document his undocumented existence, he said.
Throughout his early career, Vargas depended on a license he got from Washington, where undocumented citizens can legally apply for licenses. “That driver’s license was my life for eight years,” he said. “It was the only proof of my identity I had.”
Vargas emphasized that support from those who know undocumented immigrants is an important part of elevating discussion about immigration in the United States. Contradictory knowledge or lack of knowledge plagues the debate over immigration, he noted. For example, most people do not realize that undocumented workers paid $28 million in Rhode Island state taxes in 2010, he said.
Ceasing to frame the debate in simplistic us-versus-them language like “illegal immigrants” will move the debate toward solutions, he added, noting that mixed-status families and millions of undocumented students complicate the debate.
“They can’t all just babysit your kids and mow your lawns and serve you drinks,” Vargas said.
He applauded Rhode Island for being one of the few states to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students.
Rooted in the global economy and foreign policy, immigration will be a defining topic of the 21st century. But discussions of these underlying issues will not happen until we reframe the debate in less “pejorative and dehumanizing” terms, Vargas said.
Vargas showed the audience a clip of civil rights movement leader James Baldwin, who he said made him realize that despite the differences in separate rights movements, “we’re all in this together.”
When pressed by audience members about border control and national security, Vargas said he is concerned that the U.S. government has a limited understanding of the scope of illegal immigration. “All we have is political football, political theater,” he said.
Undocumented workers are stereotyped as only coming from Mexico, and little structure exists to deal with the large diversity in the undocumented population, he added.
Vargas said “citizenship is something that has to be earned” and promotes increasing access to English-learning programs for immigrants.
“I’ve paid so much in taxes, I should be a Republican,” said Vargas, who frequently speaks to conservative groups. He believes that the immigration debate needs to address the “white working class anxiety” that fuels anti-immigrant feelings.
Vargas visited Brown three days before he is set to appear in court after being arrested for driving without a valid license in Minnesota, according to the Twin Cities Daily Planet.
His arrest falls under “Secure Communities,” a Bush-era program that, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website, encourages local law enforcement to report arrests of undocumented immigrants who have broken criminal laws to the ICE.
Legislation like “Secure Communities” results from the overly simplistic terms of the discussion on immigration, Vargas told The Herald after the lecture.
“Life has not been secure and safe in immigrant communities under (the legislation),” he added. The Obama administration, which has continued the program, needs to reconsider it, he said.
Vargas said he could not comment on his current court case, but added that he is grateful he was released.
Vargas’ interest in speaking at Ivy League schools stems from student activism such as the Ivy League Immigrants’ Rights Coalition Summit, he said, adding, “College campuses and among young people are where we actually can have an honest discussion.”