Tevlin: In Minnesota again, Vargas asks to 'Define American'

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 11, 2012 - 8:13 PM

Jose Antonio Vargas

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Jose Antonio Vargas isn't coming back to Minnesota because he had such a good time here in October.

Here to speak at Carleton College a couple of months ago, the journalist-turned-immigration-activist was pulled over for wearing earphones while driving and was taken into custody for having a revoked license. He was released after a few hours.

He's back in Minnesota because he believes immigration reform is crucial, and inevitable, and he wants to be part of the discussion.

Vargas, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, "came out" as an undocumented worker in an essay in the New York Times in 2011. He has since become one of the more prominent faces of the immigration debate through his campaign, "Define American," through which he hopes to elevate the discussion on immigration reform and what makes a person American.

He will take part in a fundraiser for the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota Wednesday night at the Riverview Theater (free, donations accepted) in Minneapolis. Vargas will show footage he has shot for a documentary he's working on and will talk about his life as an undocumented resident.

Vargas arrived in California in 1993 to live with his grandparents. He was just 12, and had no idea that the documents he carried were fraudulent. He found out while applying for a driver's license at age 16, by then feeling every bit as American as his classmates.

"I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American," he wrote. "I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it."

Despite building an impressive career as a journalist, living a crime-free life and paying the same taxes as his friends, however, he could not earn it.

"On the surface, I've created a good life. I've lived the American dream," he wrote. "But I am still an undocumented immigrant."

In a telephone interview from the road, where Vargas has been talking about "the most controversial and least understood issue we have," he told of people who repeatedly questioned him about why he hasn't been deported and why he isn't yet a citizen.

"People just don't understand how the process works," said Vargas. "It's not like Sandra Bullock in 'The Proposal' where you can just marry someone and become a citizen."

Such a process can take years. Besides, Vargas is gay and gay marriage is not recognized federally.

He could turn himself back in, be shipped back to his previous home in the Philippines, a country he barely knows, and then wait. Perhaps for decades. One pair of siblings from that country applied for U.S. citizenship in 1989, he said, and are still waiting.

Shortly after Vargas wrote another piece of his undocumented life in Time, the Obama administration, which has deported more immigrants than that of former President George W. Bush, announced it would no longer focus on successful, law-abiding immigrants like Vargas. He has even called Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ask what they plan to do with him, but they refuse to discuss his case.

Misunderstanding of immigration is far-reaching, including in the media where many still refer to undocumented residents as "illegal."

"Actions are illegal, people are not," said Vargas. Besides, the deferred action program means that young immigrants under 30 are here on temporary status, and not illegal. "Calling them 'illegal' is inaccurate and imprecise."

To get his message across, Vargas has thrown himself to the wolves, to commentators on Fox News such as Bill O'Reilly (who agrees on a "path to citizenship") and Lou Dobbs.

In presentations, he frequently talks to people who are anti-immigrant, and says they usually come to see that "We want the same thing, a solution to the immigration problem. I try to remind them why this country is so great."

Vargas has been known to bring his tax returns and records of his Social Security payments to events to show his contribution to the country. No longer working for a media outlet, Vargas now tells his own story in the hopes of reform, which he predicts will happen soon.

"Immigration reform is going to happen," he said. "Obama is going to make sure of it, and the future of the Republican Party depends on it" because of demographics and poll numbers showing overwhelming support for change.

"I've gone to school here since middle school," said Vargas. "This country has invested in me. All I want to do is give back."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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