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.