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Undocumented immigrants emboldened by Jose Antonio Vargas’ example

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Courtesy Photo

 By Carla Villasana-Acosta

“No human being is illegal.” This phrase inspired a round of applause from the audience gathered Wednesday night at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, officially introducing “Immigration: Not Legal, Not Leaving,” a presentation by Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who recently went public with his story about living in America as an undocumented immigrant.

Vargas, who has worked for publications including The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Daily News, and The Huffington Post, was the first speaker to visit Grand Rapids as part of Grand Rapids Community College’s 2013-2014 Diversity Lecture Series, and about 1,000 people formed an audience willing to observe the immigration debate from a new perspective.

Photo by Carla Villasana-Acosta
Jose Antonio Vargas after presenting “Not Legal, Not Leaving” at Fountain Street Church.

“Immigration is way more complicated than the ‘illegal’ in our minds and the Mexican Border,” Vargas said.

Vargas explained that this conversation goes from Ellis Island, the first immigration process in the United States, to the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are currently living in the country.

By sharing historical facts and his own story, Vargas showed how undocumented immigrants are involved in the community just as everybody else. However, he pointed out that 1,000 of them, “mothers and daughters, sons and fathers,” get deported everyday by the Obama administration.

A decade long burden made Vargas step out and admit he was undocumented. Professional success was not enough to ease the pressure of keeping a secret. He then starting speaking out nationally about immigration, and founded the Define American campaign, which allows participants to share their beliefs on what being an American really is.

Vargas described these times as an “era of empathy.” It is not necessary to be part of a minority or an activist cause to defend others’ rights and “to treat human beings with dignity.”

The audience appeared to be captivated by Vargas’s speech that inspired some to speak out after the event. During the question and answer session that followed the presentation, a 19-year-old GRCC student named Jose, stood up and announced that he was an undocumented immigrant. The audience clapped in response. The student said Vargas inspired him to tell his story. “I have admired Jose for a long time,” he said after declaring his status to a church full of strangers.”… I feel I don’t have to hide anymore.”