Activist Vargas Argues for Immigration Reform

"Define American"
Jose A. Vargas, Founder of the Define American foundation, speaks to the Harvard Republican Club on Tuesday evening. The Pulitzer Prize recipient visited Harvard to encourage conversation about undocumented immigrants.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas discussed his experience as an undocumented immigrant and well-known immigration activist at a Harvard Republican Club event on Tuesday.

Vargas has filmed several documentaries, including CNN’s “Documented” and MTV’s “White People.”

After revealing himself as an undocumented immigrant in 2011 through an essay in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Vargas said he was shocked when nothing happened. He had been expecting to face arrest and deportation immediately, he said, but for whatever reason, his life carried on as it had before.

“I’m not trying to be politically correct here. I am here illegally. If the cops wanted to show up and detain me, they can,” Vargas said. “But I as a person am not illegal. For me, the culture has to shift first, and unfortunately we’re not there yet.”

Vargas founded the non-profit “Define American,” which looks to start a dialogue about diversity and what it means to be an American.

“I actually think immigrants in this country show Americans what it is to be American,” he said. “Because no matter what you call us, no matter whatever barrier you put in front of us, we’re going to do it.”

Aaron I. Henricks ’16, the former president of the Republican Club, organized the event by reaching out to Vargas on Twitter.

“I’m always happy when we can get someone who disagrees with the mainstream Republican views because it challenges us and I think sets a good precedent for what campus dialogue should be all about,” Henricks said.

After recounting the aftermath of divulging his undocumented status, Vargas fielded questions from the roughly 40-person audience in a Science Center lecture hall. Some challenged Vargas’s viewpoints; one student asked if he would support permanent legal status without a pathway to citizenship. Vargas called that second-class citizenship.

Vargas said he has been reaching out to more young Republicans around the country.

“When people think of the Republican Party, they think it’s anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, anti-black,” Vargas said. “I don’t want to live in a country like that. We need two parties to actually have debate.”

Leanne R. Trujillo, a student at the Graduate School of Education and a self-described supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, said she was curious to hear some of the questions from the College Republicans.

“This definitely showed me that there has been a shift since the time I was an undergraduate,” Trujillo said. “I don’t think I would have ever seen an event [like this] run by college Republicans.”

Attendee Ana R. Andrade ’19 said she personally knows some undocumented immigrants in the Boston area who are business owners and taxpayers. Two Harvard students who identified themselves as undocumented also asked questions during the question-and-answer session.

“I think it was just really eye-opening for Harvard students to start to realize that undocumented students are on this campus, and they’re your classmates sitting right next to you,” Andrade said.

Vargas previously spoke at Harvard and argued for the need for more open conversation about racial equality and immigration at an Askwith Forum in March.

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