Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas spoke at the University about his life as an undocumented immigrant and his desire to promote discussion about immigration through Define American, the organization he founded.
Before an overflowing crowd at the Rackham Amphitheater last night, Vargas said he launched Define American to encourage conversation about immigration and tell the stories of immigrants in the United States through YouTube videos modeled after the It Gets Better campaign.
He added that many people associate illegal immigration with criminality, thus it was important to collect stories from as many people as possible.
“Undocumented immigrants are just like everybody else, our parents, like the parents of the country’s first immigrants, came to U.S. for a search of a better life like everyone in this room,” he said. “With or without proper documents, I’m a human too, and no human being is illegal.”
Kevin Mersol-Barg, founder of the student organization Coalition for Tuition Equality and the event’s organizer, said the speech was intended to provide perspective on the struggles undocumented students face.
The University restricts undocumented students who live in Michigan from paying in-state tuition, forcing them to pay the same rate as international students — three times the amount an in-state student pays.
Mersol-Barg said such policies were pushing away talented students, and he said he wants to make the University accessible to all students.
“It’s not just a minority student issue, but an issue for all of us,” he said.
Vargas said he discovered he was an undocumented resident when he went to get his driver’s permit when he turned 16 and was told his green card was fake.
“I was thinking to myself, the woman must be lying, because I’m not Mexican,” Vargas said. “I was a victim of my own stereotype — I thought only Mexicans could be illegal immigrants.”
His grandfather then informed him of his undocumented status, embroiling Vargas in a series of elaborate lies that allowed him to obtain a driver’s license and social security card.
“It’s a dangerous thing to be sixteen in America and realize that the flag you’ve been pledging allegiance to didn’t belong to you,” he said.
He added that his high school English teacher led him to journalism, where he found security in working and “contributing to society.”
In 2008, Vargas was a part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team of journalists, which won the award for Breaking News Reporting for its coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. He also wrote an in-depth profile of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in September 2010. Vargas, who was initially hired by The Washington Post in 2004, quickly rose to the highest echelons of the journalism world.
Last summer, Vargas finally told his story in a highly-publicized article in The New York Times Magazine to demonstrate undocumented immigrants’ diverse backgrounds and professions.
Vargas said undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in local and state taxes in 2010, and 63 percent have resided in the United States for 10 years or longer.
Vargas added that the nature of immigration in the United States changed significantly over the last 50 years.
“The interesting thing, of course, is that most of the immigrants coming in the late 19th century were white,” he said. “Most of the people coming to this country since the Immigration Act of 1965 — legal and illegal — have been mostly Asian and Latino; that’s the only difference.”
He provided evidence that the American population is shifting, citing that slightly over a third of Americans belong to minority groups.
“It’s not going to get any less gay, any less Asian, any less Latino or Black,” he said. “The question of how we define American is coming face-to-face with a demographically changing America.”
At the event, University of Detroit Mercy senior Maria Ibarra also recounted her experiences as an undocumented immigrant.
Ibarra moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 9, and she said she no longer identifies as a Mexican citizen.
Ibarra said she had hoped to gain admission to the University, but was unable to apply because of her status as an undocumented immigrant.
“I had to pretend that I was a normal student while inside I just felt so alone,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t have a right to an education. I didn’t deserve what my classmates were getting, and felt that this wasn’t for me.”