The former Mountain View resident and one-time Voice intern is currently touring the country telling people about Define American — a multimedia project he started in order to "illuminate a greater universal truth about our broken immigration system."
Vargas, who covered the 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post and penned a profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker, does not fit the typical mold of an undocumented migrant worker. He told the crowd at MVHS that at the time he decided to share his secret with the world (through an op-ed piece in the New York Times), he was living comfortably in New York and getting work at some of the world's most prestigious publications. Even though he had accomplished so much, there was no easy path for him to become a citizen in the country he has called home since he was 12 years old.
Before he took the stage, Vargas told the Voice he hoped his Define American project would do just what its name suggests — get people to consider, in depth, what it actually means to be an American in this day and age.
"When you think about immigration, it's usually Hispanic people in the room and some Asian people, maybe," Vargas said. "The conversation really needs to be broader than that, you know? White people and black people also need to be a part of the conversation. Illegal immigration isn't just about undocumented people. It's also about American citizens, and how they're impacted by it."
Of particular interest to Vargas is how young, undocumented students, along with their friends and peers, are affected immigration policy.
"What positions have we put teachers in?" he asked. "What is a teacher supposed to do in Mountain View, or in the Bay Area, once a kid tells them that they're undocumented? I don't even think there's even a fact sheet, or a handbook, for how teachers and principals and superintendents are supposed to deal with this issue."
Pat Hyland, principal of MVHS at the time Vargas attended and Rich Fischer, who was superintendent, were incredibly supportive when he admitted to them that he was not a citizen, Vargas said. They offered nothing but encouragement and told him not to give up on his dream of going to college — a dream he ultimately realized. However, Vargas told the crowd, he has met bright students in his travels who have told him they plan not to pursue college for fear that they, along with their entire family, may be deported.
In one of the videos created for the Define American website, Julie, a Los Altos High School graduate and current college student, told about learning that her best friend, Mandeep, was an undocumented immigrant. She "realized that this is an issue that affects people in all of our lives."
Mandeep got into college and began studying to become a doctor, but after her sophomore year, Julie said, "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told Mandeep that she had to leave."
Julie decided to begin writing letters to immigration rights organizations and even started a Facebook group in support of her friend. Through her efforts, Mandeep's deportation has been postponed, if only temporarily. The moral of this story is summed up at the end of the video: Mandeep's "life is in limbo, and as her best friend, my life is impacted, too."
For his part, Vargas said he hopes stories like these, which he has been sharing on his Define American tour, spur people to think all the facets that comprise this thing we call immigration.
"All of us need to acknowledge and confront the issue," he says. "It's here. It's not going to go away. It's not just mowing your lawn and babysitting your kids and waiting for a job at Home Depot. ... We're trying to take immigration outside of the mindset in which people are so used to, and say, 'Wait up a second! This impacts you."
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