Defining American: Award-winning journalist José Antonio Vargas talks about changing the perception of immigrants in the U.S.

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Every American has heard that the United States is a nation of immigrants. It is described as a melting pot or a mosaic built off of the backs of those who migrated here in search of a better life.

Yet immigration remains one of the most contentious subjects debated in American politics today. Regardless of your opinion on the topic, however, it is undeniable, that because of immigration, the United States is comprised of a diverse population of countless backgrounds, stories, and beliefs, and it only continues to grow. As a result there are many variations on the idea of what it means to be an American. So how do we make sure these immigrants are fairly represented?

That’s why José Antonio Vargas created Define American, a non-profit media advocacy organization that aims to use storytelling to humanize the perception of documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States.

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, LBCC students and faculty filled the Fireside Room by the Commons Cafeteria to listen to a presentation by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker, and immigration rights activist.  

Vargas, who is an undocumented immigrant from the Phillipines, spoke about the time when he came out as undocumented in the New York Times Sunday Magazine back in 2011, contrary to the advice of his lawyers. He said that once his story was out he knew he had to take even further action to promote dialogue about the immigration system in the United States.

“The moment I told my story, we started Define American. The reason we did that is because mine is only one story. Not just one story can represent everybody, so that’s why it was important for us to start an organization in which everybody’s story can be represented,” said Vargas.

Vargas went on to explain that the future population of the United States will be largely influenced by the current immigrant populace in the United States.

“There are 43 million immigrants in America today, documented and undocumented. I don’t separate them because the reality is that undocumented people live with documented citizens who have green cards or who have actually become naturalized,” said Vargas.

“Eighty-eight percent of the total U.S. population growth of America is going to come from those 43 million people. So a country that can barely talk about black people without having a panic attack, a country that for the most part erases the presence and the experience of Native Americans and indigenous people, is now going to have to grapple with this.”

Vargas added that he feels this is the most important discussion that the American people should be paying attention to for the future.  

“This is way bigger than DACA, this is way bigger than immigration reform. This is about the future of the country and what it will look like. To us at Define American, this is the conversation,” said Vargas.

In order to create a shift in the current perception of immigrants and immigration, Vargas explained that Define American’s strategy is split into three different areas.

The first is to challenge media by confronting the mainstream media’s coverage of immigration politics. They developed two campaigns #WordsMatter and #FactsMatter to change how journalists cover the issue of undocumented immigration.

“When you watch Fox News or you watch CNN, look at the language that they use to talk about this issue. They call us illegal. What if I told you that being in this country illegally is a civil offense and not a criminal one? So calling people ‘illegal’ is actually factually incorrect. And yet that’s the vernacular and that’s the language that they use,” said Vargas.

The second area of Define American’s strategy is to create media that battles the mainstream stereotypes of the lives of undocumented immigrants being miserable by sharing authentic imagery of joy. As a result Define American started the series #Undocujoy. Vargas showed a three-minute video from the series, about the joys of being an undocumented citizen in the United States to demonstrate a more accurate example of how undocumented immigrants should be perceived.

“When you watch television about immigrants it always seems so depressing and dark and gloomy. Like ICE is just waiting to deport us and it’s tragic and people are always crying,” said Vargas.

“When you watched this video, however, did you notice how smiley it was? Did you notice how almost everything was outside, that we’re not hiding, we go surfing, we ride bikes, we skateboard with a dog, we’re just like you. This is not some political issue for us. You all politicize it, we’re just trying to survive and live our lives like you do.”

The third and final area that Vargas talked about was Define American’s ability to curate media. On the website at DefineAmerican.com, anyone has the opportunity to share their own stories about being undocumented or about being an ally of undocumented immigrants. The entertainment media department at Define American then uses those stories to advise executive producers and writers in the television industry on how they can better represent immigrant characters in their programs.  

“Right now Define American is consulting with about twenty TV shows that are trying to add immigrants and immigrant storylines into their narratives,” said Vargas.

“For example, I don’t know if you know this but there’s about one hundred undocumented medical students in the country, so there’s going to be a storyline in a pretty big show this spring about that issue.”

Vargas mentioned that Define American has 51 college chapters from around the country in states such as Texas, Iowa, and Nebraska. He said he hopes to add LBCC to the growing list and encouraged everyone to get involved.

“Sharing your story really matters, so if you can, please do that,” said Vargas.

After his presentation Vargas opened the forum for questions and went into more depth as to why he decided to publish his article about being undocumented in 2011. He told a story about how in 2003 he needed to get his driver’s license in order to intern for the Washington Post. At the time Oregon was the closest place he could go to earn his license, which was valid for eight years.

“It was so naive of me, but I thought I had eight years to prove that I was worthy and that I could be successful.”

He said after he got his license he made a list of all the things he hoped to accomplish in order to prove himself. Vargas wrote down that he would work for the Washington Post, write for the New Yorker, write for the Rolling Stone, become a political reporter, and win a Pulitzer Prize.  

“I did all those things by the time I turned thirty, but I still couldn’t fix the situation. So my only solutions were to leave, or write that article.”

Back in 2010 Vargas wrote a profile about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a few weeks before the movie “The Social Network” came out. He spent a week with Zuckerberg and recalled interviewing him while walking down California Avenue in Palo Alto near Zuckerberg’s office, when Zuckerberg asked Vargas to tell him a little bit about himself and where he was from. At the time Vargas had not come out as undocumented and had to lie in order to keep it a secret. He then opened up on what he actually wanted to say in that moment.

“Where I’m from is I get offered to be a foreign correspondent to cover the war in Iraq and I have to tell the editor ‘Oh I hate traveling abroad.’ Where I’m from is that a friend is going to get married in Paris and I have to lie to that friend as to why I’m not going to Paris for their wedding,” said Vargas.

“So when Zuckerberg asked me that question about where I was from, I thought: I’m about to be thirty, I’m making a lot of money and I’m done lying.”

 Vargas then reflected on his decision to come out as undocumented.

“I spent all of my teenage years and my twenties being scared. But after I’ve done this now for six years I actually feel like the government is more scared of me than I am of it.”

Vargas concluded by asking the audience a question.

“All of us here have some kind of privilege so the question now becomes what are you willing to do to risk your privilege?”

At a Glance:

For more information about Define American or if you want to share your story visit their website at www.defineamerican.com

Story by Joshua Stickrod

Photos by Angela Scott