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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas Speaks at BC

On Tuesday March 1, the BC’s Chambers Lecture Series hosted Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning undocumented immigrant. Both a journalist and filmmaker, Vargas rose to fame through his coverage of the 2008 Virginia Tech shooting with the Washington Post. His experience has expanded from opportunities writing for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Huffington Post, and The New Yorker. His work largely revolves around discussion on immigration and the rights of undocumented immigrants. One of his most outstanding pieces, published in the New York Times Magazine, is titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant”. In this 2011 essay, Vargas revealed himself as an undocumented migrant. At age twelve, his mother sent him from the Philippines to the United States with a green card he was not aware was illegitimate. But, according to Vargas, documentation does not a citizen make. “I am an American,” he said. “I just don’t have the right papers.”

Professor Westy Egmont of the School of Social Work delivered a very touching opening. His examination of how America develops national identity set the tone for the evening. This brief hour was expected to be more than the minutiae of a journalist’s day-to-day routine; Vargas shared his story of being an outsider in his own country and further addressed how the unjust immigration system relegates millions to the shadows.

Vargas recounted discovering his own status as an undocumented immigrant on a trip to the DMV at  age sixteen. Since then, he has been "living as a stranger in what should not be a strange land." He illustrated vividly his internalization of the way others view him and how he has been labeled an outsider. His entire life, Vargas said, is practically an act of civil disobedience. He is a gay, Asian, illegal immigrant with a Spanish name and a B.A. in African American Studies—he cannot be easily placed in any of the social constructs that others would like him to exist within.

He decided to come out as an illegal immigrant as he approached his thirtieth birthday. He had been trying to maintain a veil of racial ambiguity but was growing ever more unhappy dodging questions about his racial background. Rarely was San Francisco a suitable answer when people asked him where he was from. “Where are you from from?” became a question he was tired of avoiding.

After he exposed himself as an undocumented immigrant, he called the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ask why they had not deported him. The receiver of the call said I.C.E. did not comment on individual cases. “You don’t exist to us,” they told him. His phone call represented the microcosm for all the lives of undocumented migrants. According to Vargas, they exist all around—one may see them every day—but their existence is not deemed legitimate by those in charge. Undocumented immigrants contribute much more to the United States social and economic structure than one might initially think. Vargas cited the Social Security Administration, claiming that unauthorized workers have contributed $100 billion to the fund. The undocumented citizen’s contributions have kept the fund solvent despite their ineligibility to receive any of its benefits.

“Has humanity ever built a wall that could withstand human will?” proved to be the most poignant question of the night. Looking at the nation's history, the answer may very well be a resounding "no." Vargas evaded partisan politics in his discussion but could not withhold his opinion on the wall Donald Trump wishes to build on the U.S.-Mexico border. The $100 billion the United States has spent on border control since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 seems "nonsensical," Vargas noted, considering 40% of undocumented migrants simply overstay their visas and that the largest growing population of illegal immigrants now comes from Asia. Vargas brought up these statistics not to take a political stance, but to illustrate how the fundamental questions Americans ask regarding immigration need to change.

Bill O’Reilly once told Vargas: “You don’t deserve to be here.” Vargas responded by asking the same question of all Americans. “Every American,” Vargas claimed, “should be able to answer three questions: “Where did you come from, how did you get here, and who paid?”. Vargas then invited the audience to reflect on the country’s history and ask themselves whether laws strive to demonstrate equality and justice or whether they merely reflect the will of the many. Vargas ended the discussion by encouraging those who are eligible to vote engage in equal rights advocacy efforts and take advantage of their right to vote if they want to effect change. “We cannot afford for good people to be silent,” he commented.

Check out his film Documented on Netflix and be on the watch for his forthcoming magazine,  #EmergingUS.