April 13, 2012
Jose Antonio Vargas is a journalist, who wrote a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine 10 months ago in which he revealed that he is in fact an undocumented immigrant. He was at SIPA on Tuesday at 6 pm to talk about his own life story and about his latest project, Define American, a site where people can post their own immigration stories and what “American” means to them. Clava Brodsky documented it.
Existence is a slippery fish. Descartes grasped it by thinking; Jose Antonio Vargas nailed it by writing for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the Huffington and Washington Posts. As an undocumented immigrant, Vargas legally does not exist in this country. Yet Vargas postulates his own ontological argument: “How can they say I don’t exist if I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker?” (You know you’ve made it big when you find yourself in a proof of existence!) But before Vargas had written his “7000 word profile” of Zuckerberg, he struggled to understand his presence in a country that legally was not his.
At yesterday’s lecture, Vargas walked the audience through his life story and how he came to start the ‘Define American’ project. Vargas’ story began as a 12 year old kid, who tried to become as American as possible: reading about the OJ Simpson trial and watching Seinfeld and Frasier–3 American classics. Now, as an established journalist, Vargas decided to come out “for the second time” (he came out as gay in high school) to start a “comprehensive immigration conversation.”
“We always talk about the immigration problem,” Vargas pointed out, “and we never quite make it to the solution.” While Herman Cain was just a few paces away talking about the immigration crisis facing this country, Vargas painted a wholly different picture–where there are no “illegal” immigrants, but rather “undocumented” ones; where these immigrants are productive and hardworking Americans; and where “at one time everyone [in this country] was undocumented.” He pointed out that undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2011. 63% of these immigrants have lived in America for over 10 years. Finally, Vargas called on the (mostly sympathetic) audience to remember that this is a country of immigrants, where over 12.9% of the population is made up of non-born citizens.