Pulitzer Prize-Winning journalist, acclaimed filmmaker, and immigration advocate Jose Antonio Vargas came to Illinois State’s campus to stress the importance of providing undocumented immigrants the space to change the misleading narratives common in the media.

“We cannot change the politics of immigration until we change the culture that controls the way that immigration is seen,” Vargas said. “I can say with confidence that immigration is the most talked about and least understood issue with the American public.”

Vargas was the keynote speaker for this year’s Asian Cultural Dinner. The third and final cultural dinner of the school year was held on April 12 in the Brown Ballroom of the Bone Student Center. Vargas took the stage shortly before 6 p.m. after the approximately 250 attendees had enjoyed a dinner featuring Filipino cuisine and live music by the SamaSama Project.

After being introduced to the stage by Dr. Li Zeng, assistant professor of Film Studies and president of AsiaConnect, Vargas shared his story as an undocumented immigrant. Born in the Philippines, Vargas arrived in the United States in 1993 when he was 12 years old. His mother had sent him had been sent to San Francisco to live with his grandparents, who were naturalized U.S. citizens.

Jose Antonio Vargas signing copies of his memoir for ISU students.
After the dinner, Jose Antonio Vargas met with attendees and signed copies of his memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.

Vargas had trouble adjusting to his new country. He found purpose through his mentors in high school, which led him to his career in journalism. He started his career at the Washington Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2008.

“Journalism is my religion,” he said. “And I say that because it taught me that my opinion and my experience isn’t the only thing that matters. It asked and demanded of me to see myself in the context of other people.”

However, Vargas was growing weary of harboring the secret of his status and he wanted to use his media platform to come out as an undocumented immigrant. Against the advice of 28 immigration lawyers, Vargas published “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” in The New York Times Magazine in 2011. The essay received widespread acclaim.

“Freedom for me could only mean telling my own story,” Vargas said.

Vargas wanted to give other undocumented immigrants a platform to share their own stories and feel that sense of liberation. This led him to start the nonprofit media advocacy organization Define American, which uses storytelling to tell more authentic and nuanced immigrant narratives.

“This is just one story, a really privileged story that was told in The New York Times. We need more stories to change the anti-immigrant narrative.”

Through Define American, Vargas collaborates with writers, producers, and directors of television and movies to depict immigrants accurately. Vargas started doing this after he was approached by the producers of the NBC show Superstore, who were planning to have an undocumented, gay, Filipino character who would become a citizen by the end of the season.

“They were these well-meaning people that had no idea how immigration actually works,” he said.

In response, Define American created a series of graphics and reference guides for those in the entertainment industry to refer to when they choose to depict immigrants. Vargas said his team has now worked with over 110 movies and television shows.

EDI ISU wordmark with words equity, diversity, and inclusion is YOU, Illinois State University

Despite his success, Vargas continues to struggle with his immigration status. He channeled those feelings into a best-selling memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. In the book, he details the limited options available to undocumented immigrants who want to become citizens. These include receiving a presidential pardon or an exception from a member of Congress in the form of an individualized bill. He finds both options unsatisfactory.

“What do I tell the 11 million people who can’t get that?” Vargas said.

Instead, he must wait for immigration reform before he can visit his family in the Philippines. There are no guarantees Vargas would be allowed back into the United States if he were to leave, and his mother has been waiting 22 years to see if the United States government will allow her to visit him.

“I don’t have the words to describe that kind of separation,” he said. “It’s bigger than language.”

Vargas ended his speech by sharing a direct message he got from a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant who asked him for advice on how to succeed and stay hopeful. Vargas reflected on his experiences as a teen and encouraged the messenger to build strong relationships with the mentors in their life.

“If freedom can’t come from this government, it has to come from people,” Vargas said.

The Asian Cultural Dinner was sponsored by Event Management, Dining and Hospitality; Association of Residence Halls; Hewett-Manchester Diversity Coalition; Watterson Diversity Coalition; Tri-Towers Diversity Coalition; and Cardinal Court Council.