By Tatiana Sanchez, San Diego Union-Tribune
Journalist, filmmaker and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas on Thursday stressed the need for Americans of all backgrounds to engage in open, honest and sometimes even uncomfortable conversations about race and immigration.
More than 200 students, educators and community members attended the lecture organized by UC San Diego’s Cross-Cultural Center, which sponsors programs focused on diversity, social justice and equity.
Vargas said communities across the United States need to move past stereotypical perceptions about who unauthorized immigrants are and what their experiences are. He also detailed his own experience as an unauthorized immigrant.
“I know that I am more than a piece of paper. That I know. And I know that citizenship is something that you do have to earn. But (citizenship also) means contributing to your community, it means providing for your family, it means fighting for this country and what’s best for it. That to me is what a citizen is.”
Vargas gained prominence in 2011, when in an essay in the New York Times magazine — and against the advice of 28 lawyers — he revealed his status as an unauthorized immigrant. A former Washington Post reporter, Vargas was sent by his mother to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993, at age 12, to join his grandparents in Silicon Valley.
With falsified documents, Vargas received high school and college degrees and became a journalist. His work has been featured in several daily newspapers and in Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and the Huffington Post.
Critics have said unauthorized immigrants such as Vargas should not be allowed to stay in the U.S. because they broke the law to get here. Individuals who wish to immigrate to the country should take a legal path, they argue.
Thursday’s lecture spurred conversation from audience members, prompting some students to share personal stories about their own immigration stories.
Carlos Rodriguez immigrated illegally from Tijuana with his mother at age 13. Now a sophomore finance major at San Diego State, Rodriguez is vice president of Education Without Borders, a student organization that provides support to unauthorized immigrant and marginalized students.
“The stereotype is that the immigrant movement is primarily based on Latinos, which is not true. It’s Latinos, blacks, Asians, you name it,” he said. “It’s about debunking those stereotypes that people have about undocumented students. … We’re helping America grow.”
Since revealing his status an unauthorized immigrant, Vargas has become an advocate on the issue, embarking on several projects focusing on the intersection of immigration, race and identity.
“When I published the (New York Times magazine) article, I expected the worst,” said Vargas. “What I did not prepare for was this. I didn’t think that five years into this, this is what I would be doing.”
He is the founder of Define American, a nonprofit media organization aimed at sparking discussions on immigration and citizenship. Vargas has also started a crowd-funding campaign to raise $1 million for his news venture, “Emerging US,” a digital platform that focuses on issues of race, immigration and identity. Vargas had previously announced he would partner with the Los Angeles Times for the project but last week announced his plans to launch the project independently.