Last Thursday’s lecture featured a gay, undocumented Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas. His talk demonstrated an important step forward in the college’s history, addressing the intersectional nature of immigrants’ identities, documentation statuses, and the changing landscape of race in America.
Vargas’ lecture, entitled “Define American,” was part of a series of conversations organized by undocumented students and allies that began last year. During the 2015 fall semester, a team of faculty, students, and staff began to research how Davidson could better support undocumented students, leading to a training for staff members in student life.
This spring, the focus was campus education: three lectures highlighted different stories around immigration
and the pressing need for reform. The series included a panel on migrant and refugee ethics featuring Dr. Joseph Carens in February, a lecture and documentary on the border between Mexico and the United States presented by Dr. Miguel de la Torre in March, and finally Vargas’ lecture this past week.
President Quillen, who has shown particular interest in the concerns of undocumented students, regarded the event as “one of the most important lectures of the year,” encouraging all students to attend in a prior email.
In addition to his lecture, Vargas spent time with students and faculty for lunch. He then met with students, staff, and faculty for tea during the day for more personal conversations, even asking their opinions about his talk for that evening.
John Michael Murphy ‘16, an event organizer, described Vargas as “warm and outgoing with lots of energy.”
However, Vargas cancelled a meeting with Davidson’s undocumented students despite his rhetoric of commitment to them, explained Elizabeth Welliver ‘16, another student organizer.
On the morning of his arrival, Vargas spent time with Ric Elias, the successful business owner of Red Ventures and the founder of the Golden Door Scholarship, which benefits undocumented students. Thanks to Elias’ efforts in education and career access for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, five current Davidson students are the beneficiaries of his scholarship.
One of the recipients of the Golden Door Scholarship, Itziri Gonzalez-Barcenas ‘19, said that, as a direct result of Vargas’ lecture, she was able to “gather the courage to speak about [her] personal experiences as an undocumented student in America.”
Vargas’s lecture began with his powerful personal anecdote. The journalist colored humor into his narrative by saying, “In the last five years what I realized is sometimes you have to risk your own life to free yourself from it. In college campus’ there is a lot of talk about privilege, but to me the most important part about privilege (because we all have privilege) is what do you do to risk your own privilege? To get uncomfortable. To insist on some questions people may not want to ask. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been uncomfortable since I got to this country. I’m just sharing this uncomfortability.”
At 16 years old, Vargas landed his first job, subconsciously “breaking the law” by checking the U.S. citizen box on his work form. Up until now, Vargas has checked that box 11 times.
It was in 2010, after having published a “New Yorker” profile of Mark Zuckerberg, that he believed his professional career successful enough to earn him citizenship status. When he realized this still was not the case, he was faced with the choice of telling the truth or leaving the country.
Ignoring the 28 lawyers who advised against his confession, Vargas nonetheless chose to confess. “As they kept telling me not to, I kept saying I have to do this. I owe it to my privilege. So I confessed everything and prepared myself for the worst possible outcome,” Vargas said.
With the 400,000 people deported by the government each year, Vargas figured that he would be an easy target. “I said to immigration and customs, I’m here, come get me,” explained Vargas.
After four months of no news, Vargas became restless. He questioned, “As a reporter, how do I follow this up?” Eventually, he was able to persuade “Time Magazine” to publish his story on why they hadn’t deported him.
The short reason that the government gave stated, “We do not comment on individual cases.”
Vargas claimed that a metaphor for how most Americans think of those who are undocumented, “so as long they are mowing your lawn or taking care of your kids you’re cool. No problem. It’s Mexico’s problem; it’s the border problem. You’re exonerated from it, right? Wash your hands, clean up,” Vargas said wryly.
The more blatant reason Vargas was not deported after confessing: because he is unequivocally the most privileged undocumented person in the country.
For Anmar Jerjees ‘18, a founding member Davidson Refugee Support, Vargas’ discussion of illegal bodies is inherently what his group advocates for. “We as Americans must be willing to share the opportunities provided to us with refugees and migrants escaping their homeland in search of a better life,” he said.
In addition, Vargas’ company Define American is a campaign devoted solely to this immigration-awareness of encouraging people to come out. “I have come out twice in my life and I have no more coming outs to do,” said Vargas.
In terms of solutions, Vargas suggested that first we must change the culture in which people discuss immigration, pointing to the culture of LGBTQ rights as a prime model for this problem.
“I found his talk both galvanizing and intellectually sharp. I was impressed by the way he applied the logic of “coming out”—which has helped to transform national attitudes about LGBTQ issues in an astonishingly short time—to the issues facing undocumented residents. If undocumented people “come out” and identify themselves publicly, perhaps we can transform attitudes of fear and distrust into ones of acceptance and support,” remarked English professor Suzanne Churchill.
Vargas explained that what remains missing is the infrastructure to connect the LGBTQ and undocumented immigrant communities. In this age of intersectionality, the role of allies is essential.
Above all, Vargas calls for us to risk our own privilege and step outside our comfort zones to connect to others, no matter how difficult it may be to see eye to eye on the surface.
“I feel like we have to realize that people wake up everyday thinking about themselves and their struggles, not mine. If I can’t connect to that, then what am I doing?” The alternative is to consume antagomism towards others. Afterall, “what other choice do we have?”