Students and members of the public filled the Hub Ballroom at George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus on Saturday night for an event hosted by President Ángel Cabrera and featuring Jose Antonio Vargas, award-winning journalist, filmmaker and undocumented immigrant from the Philippines.
The event was the largest in the history of the Freedom and Learning Forum, with more than 250 people in attendance.
The conversation started with Vargas’ 2011 New York Times Magazine essay in which he first “came out” as an undocumented immigrant. Covering the 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post is what motivated him to write about himself, he said.
During this time, he covered big political names such as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, people who were surrounded by security who would ask for ID and Social Security numbers, and other candidates who were very outspoken against illegal immigration.
“The whole time I was so fearful that I was going to get found out,” said Vargas.
He became so paranoid while living in Washington, D.C., that he moved to New York City to work for the Huffington Post.
“I was just running away from all of it, and it got to the point where I couldn't anymore,” said Vargas. “I spoke to like 20 immigration lawyers. One lawyer said ‘You're in a lot of trouble,’ because every time I got a job, I lied on a form; I committed fraud.”
He was told that he lied about his citizenship too many times, and after that he drafted the New York Times Magazine essay. Now, he has come to terms with his illegal status. He has become an advocate for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and started a nonprofit organization called Define American.
“I am here illegally with no authorization from the government. When I fly out of D.C. tonight at Reagan [National Airport] they can actually arrest me at the airport for flying. I make no bones about that; that's just the reality of it,” said Vargas. "But I, as a person, am not illegal because people can't be illegal.”
Vargas talked about what he calls the “master narrative” or the inaccurate picture that undocumented immigrants are portrayed by in the media. One aspect of this narrative is the belief that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes or Social Security.
“Undocumented workers pay billions of dollars into systems that detain and deport us,” said Vargas. “Now, why hasn't the Washington Post figured that out? I don't know, because it doesn't fit the master narrative.”
Vargas encouraged students to engage in uncomfortable conversation on immigration and other controversial subjects. Vargas, following his own advice, has been a guest on conservative talk shows such as “The O’Reilly Factor” with Bill O’Reilly to talk about immigration and his undocumented status.
“We have a problem of engagement in this country. I think we only want to engage with people who already think the way that we do and believe the way that we do,” said Vargas. “I think that's a mistake. I think that's how we got into this mess to begin with.”
Vargas also promoted and signed copies of his new book “Dear America: The Story of an Undocumented Citizen,” which expands on his New York Times essay that looks at his life as an undocumented American.