Undocumented journalist calls for empathy

Photo by Josh Satok.

Less than six months after Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an “undocumented immigrant” in a New York Times Magazine essay, Vargas told students Thursday night he hopes to make the national debate about immigration more respectful and productive.

The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist spoke to a crowd of over 100 undergraduates, Law School students and New Haven residents in a Law School lecture room about his new campaign, “Define America.” He urged documented and undocumented people alike to “empathize” with each other’s circumstances and play active roles in reforming the way Americans think and talk about immigration.

“I understand this is an anxious time and people want someone to blame,” he said. “What people are asking for here is human dignity. They don’t deserve to be talked about this way.”

Vargas said he objects to the use of the word “illegal” because it is hurtful, especially to impressionable children who cannot control their immigration status, adding that he did not learn that he was undocumented until he applied for a driver’s permit with a green card that, unbeknownst to him, was fake.

But he said the average American voter does not want to hear immigration talked about in empathetic terms. Still, he argued that Americans of all backgrounds have a responsibility and an obligation to open dialogue about immigration.

“When we talk about an undocumented immigrant living here since the age of six or seven who has a biology degree but now has to wait tables even though she’s had job offers, that’s just not right,” he said. “But what are you doing to speak out about that?”

Vargas said many Americans are either indifferent or ignorant about immigration. For example, he said people have asked him, “Why don’t you just make yourself legal?”

In addition, Vargas said most politicians, whether conservative or liberal, do not know how to properly discuss issues of immigration, and the political sphere has dehumanized immigration by sorting people into groups that “deserve” citizenship and groups that don’t. He recalled feeling shocked when he heard the offensive chant “I want my country back” while covering the Tea Party movement as a reporter. The language Americans use to debate immigration is accusatory, degrading and sometimes racist, he said. As an example, he citedDebbie Riddle, a Texas lawmaker who proposed a bill to make hiring undocumented immigrants a felony — unless one is hiring a maid or a yard worker.

Vargas said Define America is more focused on changing the cultural conception of immigration than it is on specific policy changes.

“We can’t even begin to talk about the pieces of legislation if the way we talk about it is broken,” Vargas said.

However, Vargas said he supports the DREAM Act, a proposal to grant citizenship to certain immigrants of “good moral character” who have college educations or have enlisted in the military, though he added that the bill would help only a small number of immigrants.

“In this debate, we’ve created classes of people,” he said. “Should we only embrace ‘model minorities’ — people who can get into universities like Yale?”

Vargas said the day the DREAM Act failed in the Senate was the day he decided he was going to come clean. In his New York Times Magazine essay, which garnered a much attention from the media, he called the bill’s failure the “final straw,” and he did not not want to have to lie to his friends and employers anymore.

Vargas was born in the Philippines and sent to the United States to live with his grandparents when he was 12 years old.

After discovering at age 16 that he was undocumented, Vargas said he spent the next two decades in fear as he struggled to obtain driver’s licenses and make his way in the journalism world without being discovered. Since the publication of his essay, Vargas said his driver’s license has been revoked.

Juan Diaz ’15 said he agreed with Vargas that many Americans do not think about immigration on a regular basis — only during “brief moments of nasty political discourse.” Roselyn Cruz ’15 said that Vargas showed how immigration is an issue that affects everyone.

“We are surrounded by people that are treated as second-class citizens that should not be,” she said.

There were about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in 2008, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.


  • redman

    I’ve worked with many legal immigrants, those that have followed the correct process and waited sometime years before they were able to enter this country. Equating illegal immigrants with those is the tactic of the liberals, but in reality, the illegals are stealing the places of citizens and legal immigrants.

  • anothervoice

    First of all people are not “illegal”. Illegal is not a noun. Redman, you rhetoric is destructive to an open peaceful immigration conversation. Have you ever met someone who is “illegal”? Not everyone has the privilege to legally migrate. What if your family was forced to move to the United States for survival? Many migrant families are forced to move because of the aftermath of “US exceptionalism”.

  • random


    First of all, you should have used a comma after “First of all.”

    Second of all, illegal CAN be used as a noun. From the New Oxford American Dictionary:

    “illegal |i(l)ˈlēgəl|
    contrary to or forbidden by law, esp. criminal law: illegal drugs.
    an illegal immigrant.”

    Finally, punctuation should be WITHIN quotation marks (i.e. “illegal?” not “illegal”?).

    Anothervoice, your “writing” is destructive.

    • anothervoice

      Sorry, I have more important things to care about than grammatical errors that anon posters make. I believe your “comments” are destructive. In your example, illegal is used to modify immigrant making it part of an adjective. My point was that we should not use the term illegal. Frankly, “random” you are avoiding the real issue of immigration.

  • ElizabethGrayHenry

    If illegal immigrants are just undocumented workers, then are drug dealers just unlicensed pharmacists?

    Immigrating to the United States (or any country) without completing the proper requirements for immigration is against the law–illegal–just as dealing prescription drugs when you’re not a licensed pharmacist is illegal. Why do we call illegal immigrants undocumented workers if we don’t call drug dealers unlicensed pharmacists?

    • anothervoice

      This is another great analogy just like your tofu analogy about abortion. Great job!

  • yalie1420

    Calling someone “an illegal” is like calling someone “a gay” — it’s offensive because it defines the whole person based on just one action/trait.

    Calling someone an “illegal immigrant” or “illegal worker” is inaccurate. The immigrant is not illegal, and neither is the worker. The immigration (the actual act) is illegal. The term “undocumented immigrant” is more objective and more descriptive: it tells us that the person has entered the country but is not officially recognized by the country as being here.

    Of course you can open your dictionary and find “illegal” defined as a noun, and the phrase “illegal immigrant” defined as well. But dictionaries don’t tell us what the best way to use the language is; they describe how the language is actually used in day-to-day discourse. Yes, the noun “illegal” is defined as “an illegal immigrant.” And the noun “faggot” is defined as “a male homosexual”. Doesn’t make it any more accurate or any less offensive that it appears in a dictionary.

    The idea that undocumented immigrants are somehow “stealing the places” of citizens is not very well articulated. What do you mean by “places”? Jobs? Houses? Land?

    Whatever the case, it doesn’t make sense. The number of jobs is not static. There are more jobs in the US than in the UK because the US has a lot more people. There are even more jobs in China. When more people move to the US, more things are consumed, and therefore more work needs to be done. At Vargas’s speech, there was a girl in the audience (Yale undergrad) who admitted that she was undocumented until very recently (her mother married an American citizen recently). She has just as much potential as the rest of us to create lots of jobs for our fellow citizens when she graduates.

    Oftentimes, the idea of “throwing open our borders” is treated as if it’s ridiculous. Any talk of “amnesty” makes people cringe. But why can’t we be a welcoming country? Why should we require people who aspire to achieve the American dream to wait for years and years before they have the chance to come here? We’re not exactly overcrowded. We are a country of immigrants: my ancestors, your ancestors — they all benefited from the fact that many years ago, coming to America was much less of a challenge. What makes America unique is that we are not a country of citizens with a common ethnic background, but rather a country of citizens who share a common aspiration — who believe in freedom, and the American dream.

    You say there is a legal process of immigration. That’s true, but it’s way too long and difficult. Legal immigration should be fast, expedient, and open to a wide range of people.

    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
    Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

  • medley

    @ yalie1420, I am glad to see your intelligent reply on this topic!

  • Information

    Agree yalie 1420 was well written and articulate, but no need to “use” gender identity issues… Everyone at Yale is very accepting and respectful of gender identity. It felt like yalie1420 was playing on that cultural sensitivity–in essence “using” it insread of making the case for immigration issues separate from gender identity.

  • yalie1420

    Interesting that you bring that up, Information. The co-opting of gay rights movement language for immigrant issues was actually something of a theme at Vargas’s talk — especially the term “coming out” and how more and more undocumented immigrants are using the term to refer to the act of disclosing their legal status. I think there are some issues with this, because essentially all the connotations that the words “coming out” now have from the gay rights movement are being slapped onto the immigration rights movement without critically thinking about whether the parallels are completely accurate.

    I don’t think that’s what I was trying to do though. I was not trying to equate the plight of undocumented immigrants with that of gay men; I was just trying to illustrate the fallacy of the “it’s in the dictionary” argument that ‘random’ used to defend the use of ‘illegal’ as a noun. Everyone here readily understands that it’s inappropriate to use offensive language, no matter which dictionaries approve it, when referring to gay men; if they also believe that it is okay to call people “illegals,” then they are hypocrites. Was I “using” the cultural sensitivity to queer issues here? Sure. Was I abusing it? I don’t think so — I think that (a) the comparisons were valid, and (b) we are not *overly* sensitive at Yale to queer issues, but rather justifiably sensitive. I was not exploiting some illogical and sentimental knee-jerk sensitivity to queer issues, but rather appealing to people’s logical and justified acceptance and respect towards the LGBTQ community.

    One minor correction: sexual orientation is not the same thing as gender identity.

  • dm

    @yalie1420–Since the exact term used seems important to you, it is good to note that illegal immigrants cannot in good faith be called “undocumented.” Many are, in fact, quite well-documented. A lot of immigrants have false identification, or do actively pay taxes, giving them a certain type of documentation. “Undocumented”is jut not a proper term when it does not describe what is the truth for a lot of people. Vargas, for example, had a driver’s license. Illegal immigrants are illegal because they are illegally residing in the country. Illegally working in the country. I agree with you that the legal immigration system needs to change, but you are just wrong in your semantics argument. Perhaps you would prefer the phrase, “individuals who have broken U.S. immigration and labor laws,” since illegal is apparent a curse word.

  • YaleMom

    He’s a snazzy dresser!