The Diversity Lecture Series kicks off at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Fountain Street Church with award winning journalist, filmmaker and activist Jose Antonio Vargas.
Since 2004, Vargas has written extensively about social issues including gay rights, aids activism and the many faceted role that technology plays in our lives for national publications such as Time Magazine, The New Yorker, Huffington Post and Rolling Stone, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for a series of articles on the Virginia Tech shooting published in the Washington Post.
In 2011 and in the midst of a booming journalism career, Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant in an article published by the New York Times Sunday Magazine titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” Born and raised in the Philippines until age 12, he was sent to live with his grandparents in California in order to have more opportunities and a chance at a better life. Four years later, when applying for a driver’s license, he discovered that his immigration documents were in fact fake, and that he was not a legal citizen of the United States.
“I felt like I was the only non-mexican undocumented immigrant,” Vargas said. “The media will have people believe that immigration is all about the Mexican U.S. border, and it isn’t.”
Vargas, now 32 years old, kept this hidden for 15 years as he pursued and completed his education, and went on to live as a working, tax paying citizen, all the while fearing that his undocumented status would be discovered.
“There was a lot of anxiety about it…as a journalist you are trained to write about the truth, and here I was lying about myself,” Vargas said. “It got to be surreal.”
His article received massive attention and won the Sidney Award, an honor given to “outstanding pieces of socially conscious journalism.”
When asked what motivated him to come out publicly with his undocumented status, Vargas gives credit to those who came before him. “Frankly, I am so late to this…undocumented immigrants have been coming out since 2003, so I am about 10 years late. I am trying to make up for lost time,” he said.
In 2012 Time Magazine published his article “Not Legal, Not Leaving,” which detailed his daily life as an undocumented immigrant. The article was influential in the Obama administration’s decision to cease the deportation of undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who qualify for the DREAM Act, a program that guides people toward citizenship through education and service in the military.
Vargas continues to write and works as an immigration activist as the founder of Define America, an organization the promotes discussion about what makes an American an American. Through his work with Define America, Vargas kept tabs on the use of the word “illegal” in media with the aim of encouraging media outlets to instead employ the less offensive term “undocumented,” and succeeded in 2013 when the Associate Press announced they would no longer be using the former.
“We as a country haven’t been having an honest conversation about immigration,” Vargas said. He plans to open up such a conversation at Fountain Street Church tomorrow night and aims to get people thinking about what undocumented status means for local immigrants.
“The governor of California is about to sign a bill giving driver’s licenses to 11 million undocumented immigrants,” said Vargas, who lives in California. “If California can do that for 11 million immigrants who are working and contributing to the state economy, why can’t’ Michigan do the same? This is what I plan on asking the audience on Wednesday.”