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Founder of 'Define American' asks students to advocate for immigrants

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas "came out" as an undocumented immigrant three years ago and shared his story with an Elon University audience on Feb. 22 during the Intersect: Diversity & Leadership Conference.

Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas will be the first to tell you that immigration policies in the United States are broken. He should know. He’s undocumented - and no one in government has done anything about it, despite his very public pronouncements in the pages of leading national news magazines.

Nor is the topic of immigration reform a simple one to resolve, he admits. Still, there are things that can be done to ease uncertainty for people who live in the shadows of citizenship, who lack legal recognition yet contribute in meaningful ways to their communities. For instance: make it easier for undocumented immigrants to receive driver licenses or other government identification cards.

He’s appealing to young people for help in make that happen.

“I learned very early on that to be an American is a fight,” Vargas said. “I sincerely hope that you do not take your privilege for granted, and I sincerely hope that you realize that your silence is no longer acceptable, and that action is now necessary. In the history of this country, when young people got involved, things changed.”

Vargas, part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post team that covered the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, visited campus on Feb. 22, 2014, as keynote speaker for the university’s Intersect: Diversity & Leadership Conference.

In the nearly hour and a half Vargas spent in McKinnon Hall, the founder of the “Define American” project - a grassroots campaign to foster conversations about immigration - traced the story of his journey from the Philippines to living in California with his grandparents to his career writing for some of the top news organizations in the nation.

Vargas interacted with Intersect: Diversity and Leadership Conference attendees for several minutes after his formal remarks on Feb. 22, 2014.

Vargas recounted the emotional turmoil he experienced by hiding his residency status for nearly two decades after his mother sent him to the United States as a child, never telling her young son that she was using forged documents.

It wasn’t until a teenage Vargas visited a DMV in California that a state worker informed him the green card with his name on it was fake and “never to come back.” At about the same time, one of his teachers, noticing his penchant to ask questions, suggested Vargas pursue a reporting career.

“What happened between the ages of 16 and 18 determined the course of my life,” Vargas said. “As far as I was concerned, if I wasn’t considered an American because I wasn’t born here, practicing journalism was a way of earning my citizenship by working and paying taxes.”

In 2011, Vargas exposed his story, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” for the New York Times Magazine, stunning media and political circles and attracting worldwide coverage. Something funny happened soon afterward, he said. No one appeared to notice. No one showed at his doorstep to deport him. And no one seemed to be making a big deal of the revelation.

Jose Antonio Vargas: "I learned very early on that to be an American is a fight."

Well, almost no one.

“While I was waiting to get caught, I started hearing from the government. The IRS part of the government. They said, ‘Pay taxes!'” he said, noting that all people regardless of immigration status support the government through sales, property and gas taxes. “Undocumented people pay billions of dollars in taxes.”

Those taxes, and undocumented immigrants’ ongoing contributions to American society, were recurring theme of his remarks. That some citizens don’t want to acknowledge such contributions and instead choose to ignore or, worse, demonize immigrants is puzzling, he said.

“You all know we're here. You all know your economy, especially your agricultural economy, will collapse without us. You know that we need each other,” Vargas said. “We can’t all mow your lawns and babysit your kids and serve you drinks. Or is that what you want?”

His new project, a CNN film documentary about illegal immigrants living in the United States, debuts this summer. “Documented” follows Vargas around the country interviewing immigrants, businessmen, and others as he looks to reconnect with his mother in the Philippines.

Vargas debuted the film’s trailer for the conference audience. “We’re just like you,” Vargas told the crowd afterward. “And we are as deserving of dignity as you are.”

Intersect: Diversity and Leadership Conference was a two-day program hosted by the Elon Multicultural Center, Center for Leadership and the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life in accordance with Elon’s diversity pledge for global engagement and respect for human differences.

In 2010, the Leadership Development Institute and the Multicultural Student Council collaborated to create the “Intersect” concept, combining their values to form the four pillars. The Leadership Development Institute began in 1997 to equip students with skills needed to lead campus organizations effectively, and the Multicultural Student Council was founded in 2009 to prompt conversation and education about diversity at Elon.


Eric Townsend,
2/22/2014 5:10 PM