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Undocumented immigrant addresses diversity, immigration

| Thursday, March 9, 2017

Jose Antonio Vargas spoke at Saint Mary’s on Wednesday about his experiences as an undocumented immigrant and the work he has done as a journalist and with his organization, Define American, to discuss immigration and diversity. His presentation was the final part of the Diverse Students Leadership Conference presented by the Student Diversity Club at Saint Mary’s.

Vargas said he was brought to the United States when he was 12 years old to live with his grandparents, leaving behind his immediate family. He said that he didn’t know he was undocumented until he was 16, and at that time he saw it as a burden and as a form of isolation he had to overcome.

“I internalized being on the outside — my existence was a problem to be solved,” Vargas said. “I tried to face everything that I am.”

Vargas said he wanted to become a journalist because — although he didn’t have legal citizenship papers — his name could be printed in the newspaper, next to the stories he wrote. He said he has consistently gone against the advice he has been given about being so public regarding his undocumented status.

“Twenty seven lawyers gave me a choice: ‘Do you want to self-deport? Or do you want to wait be deported?’ I went against the advice of 27 lawyers,” he said.

Vargas said a huge issue surrounding the topic of immigration is rooted in the language people use to refer to undocumented immigrants.

“I am a person — I am not illegal. I, as a person, can’t be illegal,” he said.

He said another issue arises from the assumption that all undocumented immigrants come from a single place, while, in reality, they come from all around the world.

“Forty percent of the undocumented people here have overstayed their visas,” he said. “That’s almost half who didn’t come from the border of Mexico.”

Another issue stems from the citizens of the United States implicitly approving of undocumented immigrants when it is economically convenient for themselves.

“We are country addicted to cheap labor,” Vargas said. “So long as we have what we need, it’s a border, it’s a wall.”

One way Vargas has tried to combat the stigma surrounding undocumented immigrants is through his effort of questioning everyone, regardless of ethnicity or race, what their heritage is. Vargas said he wants everyone to understand that their ancestors moved to America for a better life and that this same reason drives immigration today, as well. 

“Why do people move? Do you know your own history? When Europeans or Americans move and expand, it’s courageous, it’s necessary. When Latinos move, it’s illegal — it’s a crime,” he said.

Vargas has been told at various times in his life that he does not belong here, and he said he was confused as to exactly what that meant, as individuals cannot choose what country they are born into. 

“What did you do to deserve to be here? What are we all doing to deserve to be here? Citizenship means knowing the world doesn’t revolve around you,” he said.

According to Vargas, an important action American citizens can take to combat this issue is to care about others, and to try to see life through the eyes of another.

“I ask, in all the ways that we can, we show up for each other,” he said.

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