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Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas shares immigration story

Courtesy of Define American

“I believe America is worth fighting for.”

Words that would normally be disregarded as generic campaign rhetoric from a politician or speaker stand out coming from the mouth of an undocumented immigrant.

Jose Antonio Vargas ended his keynote address on illegal immigration with those seven words.

Vargas spoke at an Ohio State’s COMPAS (Conversations on Morality, Politics, and Society) conference, a project for OSU’s Center for Ethics and Human Values. Thursday’s conference in Drinko Hall was called “Immigration: Moving Forward.”

Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for his coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings in which 32 people were killed, spoke of the discovery and public disclosure of his status as an undocumented immigrant, while he examined the issue of immigration as a whole.

“(Illegal immigration) is always a controversial topic, especially during an election year,” Vargas said.

Vargas discussed Arizona’s laws that require immigrants to show proof of their legality, and Alabama laws under which students in schools must do the same. He brought these issues to life with several videos featuring an undocumented college student, an Alabama teacher and the wife of a policeman shot by an illegal immigrant.

He also gave statistics about immigrants and the growing minority population, which make up one-third of the United States today.

“It will only get browner and more Asian,” Vargas said, to which the audience laughed.

Vargas related these issues to past immigration and racial discrimination, including the forced migration of Native Americans and the segregation of blacks and whites before the Civil Rights movement.

“Defining what America looks like has been a problem since it started,” he said.

Vargas said he recently visited Ellis Island, where more than 12 million immigrants were once welcomed to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Now we’re talking about another 12 million undocumented immigrants,” he said.

Vargas unknowingly became an illegal immigrant himself when he moved from the Philippines at age 12. After learning of his status, he did not “come out” until age 30 when he released the 2011 essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” in “New York Times Magazine.”

“I couldn’t keep lying anymore,” Vargas said.

The essay was received with worldwide attention and soon Vargas was on NPR. He discussed his interview, in which Mark Krikorian, an anti-immigration activist and executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, told Vargas he should go back to the Philippines.

Vargas then spoke directly to Krikorian, who was present at the conference.

“This is my home,” he said.

In the following Q-and-A session, Krikorian and Vargas entered a debate, particularly about whether the U.S. should enforce a limit on the number of immigrants allowed.

Vargas then read aloud a tweet posted by Krikorian, which said Vargas was on an “illegal immigration tour.”

Audience member Katie Connolly, a first-year in environmental policy and decision making, said the interaction was tense.

“I think it made the problem seem more real,” Connolly said. “But it was definitely uncomfortable.”

Other questions were posed by members of COMPAS about what actions to take to fight for undocumented immigrants.

“Tell them to come out,” Vargas said.

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