Immigrant organization founder spoke about misconception of undocumented citizens


Xavier Ortega

DePaul’s third annual President’s Lecture series featured Jose Antonio Vargas, an immigrant from the Phillippines and founder of the nonprofit Define America.

Define American, a nonprofit media organization, seeks to use storytelling to shift the conversation on immigration and citizenship.

Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of the organization, appeared to speak at DePaul’s third annual President’s Lecture Series on his life and experience as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. The event was moderated by Chris Tirres, an associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University.

“We wanted to bring people with very diverse backgrounds to speak on issues which typically are important to the public,” said A. Gabriel Esteban, DePaul University president.

Vargas immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1992, when he was 12 years old. He graduated from Mountain View High School in Mountain View, California, and San Francisco State University.

Vargas founded  Define American in 2011, after officially coming out as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine article the same year. The organization recognizes the importance of storytelling to shift the dominant narrative of undocumented citizens. Define American has consulted on 70 television programs including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Superstore” to include storylines of their experiences in the United States.

Vargas emphasized how misunderstood the experiences of undocumented people are in the United States.

“Conservative sources have created this anti-immigrant virus that has spread so wide it elected a President into office,” he said.

He acknowledged a misconception  that undocumented workers do not pay taxes to Social Security. A report from the Social Security Administration, however, reveals that unauthorized citizens contributed $12 billion dollars to the Social Security fund for 2010.

Vargas found out he was undocumented after he attempted to receive his driver’s license at the California Department of Motor Vehicles when he was 16 years old and the worker told him that his Green Card was fake. His grandfather then explained to him that he had been smuggled into the country in 1992.

After this realization, Vargas began to write for his school newspaper because he could get a byline. Vargas explained that he thought if he could not have the proper paperwork, at least his name was on some sort of documentation.

“In the very beginning,” Vargas said. “Writing was existing.”

Vargas started at the Mountain View Voice, a local paper in his hometown of Mountain View, California. He continued on to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Washington Post and the New Yorker. Vargas is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, best-selling author, Emmy-nominated filmmaker and a Tony-nominated producer.

He acknowledged these successes, but also emphasized that these accomplishments contributed to his internalization of “earned citizenship.”

In his memoir published in 2018, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” his goal was to capture his state of mind and the impact of his experience as an undocumented citizen. The book was available for purchase and signing at the event.

Before finishing the book, Vargas had thought he would use the money to leave the United States, but changed his mind once it was finished.

He recalled a significant line in the book that helped him to overcome his personal belief in “earned citizenship.”

Vargas proceeded to ask the crowd, “How many of you are documented citizens?”

After nearly everyone in the crowd raised their hands, he asked, “And what did you do to earn it?”

The line in Vargas’ book helped him realize how he got to where he is today and how he hopes to continue with his work.

“Since I’m staying, my work has to be borderless,” Vargas said. “I want my work to be as fluid as possible.”

Vargas noted that since his work is free, he is able to handle the legal and physical limitations that come with his citizenship status.

Through Define American, Vargas seeks to ask the question, “How do you define being American?”

Jocelyn Martinez, a graduate student assistant at the Office of Multicultural Student Success, attended the event and described how she views being American.“It’s the values we hold,” Martinez said. “Our values are interlocked with each other for the humanity of all.”

Vargas has struggled  with mental health and, often, the way it has been stigmatized. In the final Q&A portion of the event, a staff attorney at the DePaul Law School asked Vargas how he handles mental health in the face of stigma in the Filipino community.

Vargas answered by discussing the importance of art and the benefits of plants in his home.

“To make the decision to stay and to water plants, to be rooted somewhere,” he said. “Is the best thing I could have done for myself.”

Vargas now believes his journey has given him a reason to stay in the United States and he will continue to fight for his right to be here.

“I’m fighting for my existence and I get power from it,” Vargas said. “Something that used to make me so vulnerable is actually now something that makes me strong.”