Monday, March 11, 2013

Define American founder speaks on immigration reform

Jose Antonio Vargas discusses the immigration debate and his personal experience as an undocumented immigrant.

By Jon Overton

What does an undocumented immigrant do to obtain the necessary papers? Some get fake IDs and social security cards. One in particular used what so far appears to be a more effective solution: get your name on the (news)paper.

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and founder of Define American, an immigration reform advocacy group. Vargas revealed two years ago that he is an undocumented immigrant. He spoke at Iowa City’s Englert Theatre on March 4 about his own struggle as an undocumented immigrant and those that many others also face.

Born in the Philippines, Vargas’ grandparents moved to the United States in the ‘80s and brought him to California in 1993, though his mother had to stay behind. Vargas discovered that he was an undocumented immigrant when, while applying for a driver’s license, a DMV employee told him that his green card was fake.

To get jobs, Vargas said his grandfather made photocopies of a social security card for him with the number erased and white tape covering a section stating, Valid only for work with INS authorization.

“That’s what I gave Subway, that’s what I gave the San Francisco Chronicle, that’s what I gave the Washington Post, that’s what I gave the Huffington Post, that’s what I gave The New Yorker, that’s what we turned in when I was nominated for a Pulitzer,” he said. “... No one questioned it.”

The Washington Post, Vargas said, required a driver’s license, so he went to Oregon, which had extremely lax laws on obtaining licenses. His was set to expire in eight years (2011) and he said he thought he had that much time to prove he deserved citizenship.

“I decided after writing 800 news stories about other people that I had to tell my own story and to be in charge of my own narrative and I wanted to do it in a really big way so I ended up writing a story, an essay for the New York Times,” he said.

After no arrest was made, Vargas said he decided to write an article for Time Magazine about why the government was deporting thousands of other undocumented immigrants, but left him alone.

“It was really important for me to capture the diversity and the complexity of the issue because as far as I was concerned, each story, each of these young people underscore the injustice of an immigration system in America that needs desperately to change,” he said.

Vargas said that while 40 percent of undocumented immigrants are not from Mexico, these other groups receive minimal attention. Expanding on misrepresentation of undocumented immigrants in the media, Vargas also attacked the continuing use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

“Is there any other incidence in this country in which we refer to a group of people as illegal?” Vargas said. “Actions are illegal, never people. When you’re calling somebody illegal, you’re calling someone’s mom illegal, someone’s dad.”

Illegally obtaining a driver’s license and social security card, Vargas said, wasn’t things that he was proud of, but “what would you have done?” he said. “If you were the parent of a kid in whatever country and you wanted a better future for your kid, what would you do?”

Vargas said in 2010 undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes, invalidating the idea that those without their papers are just taking from the system and giving nothing back. What immigrants want, he said, is a better life and to be treated as equals. The immigration debate, he argued, is actually about the very nature of citizenship.

“I love this country,” Vargas said. “This is my home. I am an American. I’m just waiting for my country to realize it. And the question becomes, what are you going to do?’ How are you going to join us in this fight? What are you going to say? What are you gonna stand for?”

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