Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. Vargas is also an openly undocumented immigrant living in the United States.
Vargas told his story in a keynote speech during an event hosted by the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion Wednesday in Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre. Vargas also showed his film “Documented.”
Unknowingly brought to the U.S. from the Philippines at age 12, Vargas is one of 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
Vargas discovered he was an illegal immigrant at age 16, after being denied a driver’s license. Vargas spent the majority of his life hiding his lack of citizenship. In 2011, against his lawyers’ advice, Vargas made a bold move to publicly reveal his citizenship status.
“If the border patrol wanted to come here right now and deport me, they could,” Vargas said in his speech.
Knowing his time in the country where he spent his formative years is limited, Vargas champions discussions on the issues and misconceptions surrounding the presence of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. He challenges the conventional definition of what being an American really means.
“I can’t think of a more important question than to ask, ‘How do you define American?’ which sparks a lot of difficult, necessary and uncomfortable conversations,” Vargas said.
During his presentation, Vargas gave the audience a new perspective on immigration by sharing his story.
“[Documented] is one of the most eye-opening films I’ve ever seen,” business administration freshman Miriam
The film shows Vargas shifting his focus from building his career as a journalist to bringing awareness to the lack of support for undocumented immigrants. However, the activists’ journey has been has been an uphill battle. Misconceptions about undocumented immigrants challenged Vargas at every turn.
According to Vargas, undocumented workers have contributed about $100 billion to the social security fund and have received no benefits from it.
“But that’s a fact, so why don’t people know that?” Vargas said. “Even if people knew that, would they want to embrace that fact? Or is it too difficult?”
Vargas said another issue is the focus on the Latinx community in the debate around undocument immigrants, despite Asian immigrants being the fastest growing undocumented population.
“Why have we racialized this issue in this country in such a way that people actually think this is about Mexico?” Vargas said. “It’s not and it never was.”
To Vargas, uncomfortable questions are the key to generating productive conversations about the presence of
“Please ask me something uncomfortable,” Vargas said to students at a question and answer session following his talk.
Vargas’ talk was part of Cal Poly UndocuWeek 2017, a series of events and workshops for undocumented students at Cal Poly.
“I hope students will think about immigration more and what it means to be an American,” Program Director of the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion Kari Mansager said. “No matter race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, we can all think [of] ourselves as part of this country.”
Vargas urged audience members to start conversations about immigration and to share their own stories.
“The more we make people aware of the situation, the more we can do to help,” Abdoh said.