By Phillip Mitchell
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and human rights advocate Jose Antonio Vargas challenged undocumented immigrants to stand up for legal recognition of their status in the United States. “When our presence is broadly criminalized, our very existence is an act of resistance,” said Vargas in a recent talk at Campbell Hall.
Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine in 2011.
At UC Santa Barbara, he suggested ways for undocumented immigrants to combat hate, peacefully, at a time that Vargas described as “the most anti-immigrant era in United States history.” He urged all Americans to change the culture in which we talk and think about immigrants every day.
In an event put on by UCSB’s Multicultural Center as part of the series titled “Engaging Communities With Resilient Love,” Vargas explored the social and political landscape around immigration policy.
Vargas was born in the Philippines and was sent to Mountain View, California to live with his grandparents when he was 12.
Since then, Vargas has won a Pulitzer prize, produced an Emmy-nominated documentary, and founded a nonprofit organization Define American which operates as a leading voice for immigrants in America.
Vargas framed his discussion around questions that he says should be asked more often. “How are immigrants being portrayed in the media,” he asked. Vargas’ group Define American prepares undocumented immigrants to appear on conservative television and radio broadcasts, to give a human face to an issue that has divided the public.
This includes providing proper attire, explaining political jargon, and offering words of empowerment to those who might feel afraid to speak. Vargas said that he hopes these people help tear down many of the undeserved stereotypes attributed to their cultures.
Vargas goes a step further: his team sat in the writers’ room of the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” to construct a character for the show. The episode, titled “Beautiful Dreamer,” featured an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient, a student who was brought to the US as a child and was allowed by the Obama administration to temporarily remain.
Vargas detailed the process of creating an undocumented character for a TV show. “We sat in that writers’ room and we helped create a real-life positive example of immigration,” he said. “We had input from undocumented doctors, medical students -- we wanted to show the real thing.”
Vargas believes the effort paid off. “We probably reached more voters by putting an undocumented immigrant on Grey’s Anatomy than by putting them on CSNBC,” he said.
He cited a New York Times report that said TV shows were a better indicator of voter preference than political party was in 2016, and that among Trump voters Grey’s Anatomy was in the top ten.
Vargas spoke about his journey to become a journalist, filmmaker and author, and how hard it was for him to overcome the obstacles that came with being undocumented. Writing his book, he said, was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
“I had to stop hiding from myself. And one thing that I learned is that it is important to use your identity as a bridge, not a barrier.” His book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, touched on three major challenges of being undocumented: Lying, Passing, and Hiding.
One student who attended the event, Julia Santos, went to the rival high school in Vargas’s hometown, where she said Vargas is revered as a hero by both schools. “Jose’s book is a big part of why I’m here today. I always felt somewhat unsafe as a Filipina, especially considering how our country is now,” Santos said. “He changed my perspective in that regard. And as I looked up to him, I started to want to be a journalist like him too, in order to continue the conversation.”
In the Trump era, young people are hesitant to take a stand on divisive issues, Vargas said. He asked the crowd a troubling question: “How did we get to a point in this society that being anti-immigrant is not only socially acceptable, but being anti-immigrant actually wins you the White House?”
Renee Zapata, a fourth-year UCSB student who attended the event, said the talk inspired her. “Just the fact that he was a Filipino immigrant up on that stage talking about his experience was powerful,” she said. “Particularly when he said immigrants keep showing up despite many reasons to leave. Because that’s what we do: we show up to work, to school, everywhere, every day.”
Vargas also said mentorship is vital to success, not only for him but for all young people, and especially undocumented Americans. From those who he encountered while growing up in Mountain View, California, to the various editors he worked with at the Washington Post, Vargas heaped tons of credit on those who watched over him.
His non-profit group Define American is also exploring the theater and music industries as avenues to use to change the narrative surrounding immigrants in America. Vargas urged UCSB students, whether in the Sciences or in Humanities and Fine Arts, to seek answers to the basic questions around immigration – questions such as how, if at all, immigration is being approached in classrooms around America.
Vargas let his foundation’s defining question linger. “How do you define American?” he said.
Phillip Mitchell is a third-year Communication major at UC Santa Barbara, pursuing a Writing minor and a Journalism Certificate. He reported on this event for his class Journalism for Web and Social Media.