Diversity Summit Keynote Speaker Calls for Immigration Reform

Last Friday, SAB and the Diversity Resource Center hosted the university’s annual Diversity Summit. This year the event centered on immigration and LGBT rights, both of which were represented by keynote speaker Jose Antonio Vargas.

“I think of myself as a walking uncomfortable conversation, but it’s a conversation that needs to happen,” said Vargas.

Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, having written for major publications such as the New Yorker and the Huffington Post. He has also appeared on major networks such as CNN, NBC, and Fox to tell the story of his life as an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S.

Vargas came to the U.S. as a child, after his grandparents immigrated legally from the Philippines, and his mom, hoping to provide him with a chance at a better life, sent him to live with them. His grandfather saved $4,000 in order to purchase him a passport and a green card, and he was sent to the U.S.

“I’m an American because of the sacrifices of my family,” he said.

Until his freshman year of high school, Vargas had no idea he was undocumented. One day, like many 16-year-olds he went to the DMV to get a drivers’ license and was told his green card was fake. When he took it home, his grandfather told Vargas not to show it to people, because he was not supposed to be here.

Things changed when, at age 17, Vargas’s teacher encouraged him to become a journalist. He spent a summer at journalism camp, and decided that he would write his way into American citizenship. His byline would be his identifying documentation.

“I have written over 8,000 stories: how can they say I don’t exist?” he asked.

At age 17, Vargas also decided to come out of the closet to his entire class, as it was difficult to keep two large secrets about himself at once. Fortunately, he lived in California at the time and his classmates were very supportive.

However, Vargas stayed in the “immigration closet” for 12 years, until one day, while he was shadowing Mark Zuckerburg for an article, Zuckerburg asked him where he was from. Vargas was unable to answer, and felt cowardly compared to all of the “Dreamers” who were coming out as “illegals” during that time.

“I almost felt like it was a dare,” he said.

Vargas decided that if he was going to come out, he had to come out big, so he wrote “Outlaw,” an essay about his life as an undocumented immigrant. However, nothing happened aside from the government cancelling his Washington State drivers’ license, which he had obtained with a fake social security number. He then wrote an article for Time about why he had not been deported.

Since the article published, Vargas has been travelling the states talking about immigration. He does not consider himself an activist or an advocate, but a storyteller. He has come against a great deal of resistance throughout his travels.

America is steadily becoming more diverse, and while many people are inspired by this, many are frightened. This year marks the fiftieth Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech,” wherein he spoke of equality for African Americans. Now it is undocumented immigrants who dream of living a life with dignity.

Vargas believes that immigration reform will happen; the Republicans will not ruin their chances at 2016 by opposing it. However, this conversation is more about how the U.S. defines “American.”

“Citizenship is not something you’re given; it’s something you earn,” said Vargas.

What he is most worried about are naturalized citizens who have the power to change the conversation but do not. For every undocumented immigrant, there are several documented citizens who help them, Vargas explained, giving examples from his own life such as the Venture capitalists who paid his way through college.

Vargas emphasized to his audience that justice happens, but we all have a part in fighting for it. Vargas suggested that eliminating the use of the words “illegal immigrant” and “minority” would be a good start.


Photo by Andy Cox