If you hear the words “illegal alien,” Jose Antonio Vargas has a message for you: Confront the person who said it. A filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Vargas also is an undocumented immigrant, and will speak at the University of Puget Sound next April 6 about who exactly is an American and why we need to change the way we think about it.
“It starts with cultural perception,” says Vargas, whose visit is co-hosted by Tacoma Community House, Humanities Washington and the university. “We talk about people like they’re nothing but disposable things. It creates a system where people can be called illegal criminals. The words that an administration uses lead to policy decisions.”
Vargas, who’s been featured on Time, CNN and MTV and now runs the nonprofit Define American, likens the immigration issue to that of LGBTQ rights — and he would know. In his 2013 film “Documented,” he points out that as a teen he was “in the closet” for two big things: being gay and being an undocumented immigrant, having been brought to the United States from the Philippines by his (documented) grandparents at age 12. Unlike some immigrants brought here as children, he is too old to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, a policy begun by Barack Obama that may not continue under President Donald Trump.
And like many immigrants in his position, there’s literally no way through the citizenship process except by leaving the country where he grew up, graduated, paid taxes, won a Pulitzer and has family.
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“Documented,” as well as following Vargas’ journey after his “coming out” essay in the New York Times in 2011, uses his family story as an example of how immigration is, first and foremost, about people.
“What gets lost in the political conversation is the humans involved, the very complex nature of families,” Vargas says. “We’ve failed to explain that the 11 million undocumented immigrants live within the 41 million documented ones. They’re not over there at the border — they’re right in our living rooms.”
Other facts pointed out in “Documented” include where the fastest-growing group of undocumented immigrants comes from (Asia, actually) and how there isn’t a practical way to “just become legal.” Lack of papers affects everything from getting a driver’s license to remaining in the only home some immigrants have ever known.
“The Obama administration deported more people than any other, but it created a set of priorities — who gets to stay and who gets deported,” says Vargas. “Now, there’s utter chaos. Potentially, everybody gets deported.”
Through Define American, Vargas hopes to change cultural perceptions in news and entertainment media, talking to journalists, screenwriters and directors about the facts and reality of immigrant life.
But when he speaks in Tacoma, his call to action is for everyone to “raise the level of understanding.”
“That uncle who talks about people being illegal, who’s going to talk to that uncle? That teacher who calls immigrants criminals, who’s going to talk to them? Our unwillingness to confront this issue has led to all our problems. … And we need to go beyond the simple narrative of ‘Why are you here?’ and into treating people with dignity.”