Vargas came out publicly as an undocumented immigrant in a lengthy story in the New York Times, revealing that he had used fake documents to obtain jobs at the nation's top newspapers. "I'm done running," he explained.
He's since formed the nonprofit organization Define American to humanize the immigration debate by telling his story to "anyone who will listen."
Though Vargas had billed the Aug. 5 event as a "cultural" one aiming to bring people together, hanging over the event were doubts about whether Zuckerberg and his immigration reform advocacy group, FWD.us — which sponsored the event — were true allies to those championed in Vargas' work. While no concrete policies were advocated, Zuckerberg made assurances that he was interested in more than just H1-B visas for high-tech immigrant engineers in Silicon Valley.
"People often talk about two parts of the issue, high-skilled H1-Bs, the issues that tech companies have, and full comprehensive immigration reform as if they are two completely separate issues," Zuckerberg said. "Anyone who knows a DREAMer knows that they're not."
Young immigrants "are going to be tomorrow's entrepreneurs and the people creating jobs in this country," Zuckerberg said. "Someone did a study recently that showed that half of the top tech companies were founded by immigrants."
Before the film began, Vargas asked the audience, "How do we define American? As far as I'm concerned I am an American, I am just waiting for my country to recognize it."
The personal is political
In a panel discussion after the film, Vargas said that he and others were not "coming out" but "letting you in" on the experience of being undocumented. Some of the film's more striking scenes are when he confronts his opponents by revealing his personal story, which leads to some surprising exchanges. In one he gets a fist-bump after he wins over a man who seemed belligerent at first but then slowly becomes more reasonable as Vargas explains that he's been paying his taxes like everyone else. He befuddles people by explaining that he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist but "there is no line" for him to get into if he wants to become a citizen, an apparently common misunderstanding.
The film's most powerful moments were about Vargas' relationship with his mom, whom he stopped talking to in 1997, apparently upset that she had not followed him to the U.S. A film crew in the Philippines and another in the U.S. capture their reunion over Skype, with both of them in tears. "I didn't even know how I was supposed to feel about my mom," Vargas explains.
A number of Mountain View residents attended the screening, including over 20 from the Mountain View Day Worker Center. The center's director said Vargas' story reflected the pain many immigrants face when they leave their families behind and can no longer relate to them.
"Their first families get destroyed, it's very true," Maria Marroquin said of her day workers who cross the border without their wives and children.
Guadalupe Garcia, a DREAMer who works at a downtown Mountain View eatery and came to the U.S. with her mother as a child, said she found the film compelling because it made her reflect on the real possibility of being separated from her own mother. "I can't imagine not having my mom," she said.
Facebook CEO inspired to act
Zuckerberg said his interest in immigration started when his wife encouraged him to teach students about entrepreneurship in Menlo Park's low-income neighborhood east of Highway 101. He asked the students what they were worried about and one replied, "I'm not sure I'll be able to go to college because I'm undocumented."
Zuckerberg said the student's response "really touched me."
"I asked the students how many were born outside of the U.S. and about half of them put their hands up. It was impossible to tell the difference between them. There was no difference between the students who were born in the U.S. and were born outside, but they had this issue and they weren't going to be given an equal opportunity."
"I went home and talked to some of my friends that run tech companies and we decided to do our best at helping out," Zuckerberg said. "So we created this organization to push to get comprehensive immigration reform done."
He added that he was "really heartened to see just how easy it was to get so many of the leaders of a lot of the great companies out here to sign on to support, not just the issues that affect their company, but full comprehensive immigration reform."
Zuckerberg called Vargas a "friend" whom he initially got to know after Vargas used Facebook to report on the Virginia Tech shootings to win a Pulitzer Prize, and later when Vargas profiled Zuckerberg for the New Yorker.
Zuckerberg noted that when President Barack Obama decided to create a path to citizenship to allow immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, Vargas was too old to qualify. "He missed the cutoff by four months," Zuckerberg noted. "He's been fighting to make sure no one has had the issues he's had and to really bring justice." He added that he found Vargas' story "so compelling."
While introducing the film, Vargas vouched a bit for Zuckerberg and his efforts.
"I remember when Joe and Mark and I were first talking about Forward — it didn't even have a name yet — and they wanted to make sure this wasn't only about engineers, it wasn't only going to be about H1-Bs, it wasn't only going to be about Silicon Valley," Vargas said, referring to Zuckerberg and FWD.us president Joe Green.
After the film, Vargas said he was willing to go anywhere and talk to anyone about immigration.
"We as Americans need to be able to sit down and talk with those who may be against us," he said. "We are not getting anywhere if we just stay in our corners and point to each other."
Following the event, FWD.us launched a television ad calling for immigration reform. It tells the story of teenager Alejandro Morales, whose dream of becoming a Marine is thwarted by his lack of citizenship even though he's lived in the U.S. since he was 7 months old. Zuckerberg shared the ad with his 16.9 million followers on Facebook, generating 10,000 likes in less than an hour on Wednesday.
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