‘Un­doc­u­mented Amer­i­cans’ seek same rights as LGBT peo­ple

Cre­at­ing Change key­note Jose An­to­nio Var­gas leads charge for those coming out of two clos­ets

GA Voice - - Activism - By Dyana Bagby dbagby@the­gavoice.com

Last year, Pulitzer-win­ning jour­nal­ist Jose An­to­nio Var­gas vis­ited the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia in Athens to dis­cuss im­mi­gra­tion re­form with stu­dents.

His talk came on the heels of Ge­or­gia leg­is­la­ture’s pas­sage of a con­tro­ver­sial im­mi­gra­tion law that in­cluded al­leged racial pro­fil­ing and the “show me your pa­pers” pro­vi­sion.

At UGA, Var­gas said he had a con­ver­sa­tion with a stu­dent that has stuck with him as one of the most mem­o­rable he’s ever had.

“This young man raised his hand and iden­ti­fied him­self as a young Repub­li­can. We had a really great ex­change and to­ward the end I asked him where he was from. He said, ‘What do you mean? I’m Amer­i­can.’ I asked him again, though, where he was from. He goes, ‘I’m white.’ But white is not a place. I asked him again where he was from and he didn’t know,” Var­gas said.

“As far as I’m con­cerned, this is what the im­mi­gra­tion re­form con­ver­sa­tion is all about. Where are we from? We all come from some­where. But some peo­ple think the coun­try only be­longs to them,” he said.

Var­gas re­turns to Ge­or­gia to at­tend his first Cre­at­ing Change Con­fer­ence, the na­tional LGBT equal­ity gath­er­ing, in At­lanta Jan. 23-27. On Jan. 26 he will lead a dis­cus­sion on im­mi­gra­tion re­form with a panel of Dream ac­tivists, a group of young peo­ple work­ing to pass the fed­eral Dream Act that will al­low mi­nors brought to the U.S. to be­come le­gal ci­ti­zens.

Var­gas was born in the Philip­pines in 1981. In 1993, when he was 12, his mother put him on an air­plane with a man he was told was his un­cle and he moved to the U.S. to live with his grand­par­ents in Cal­i­for­nia. He went to school and be­gan his life as an Amer­i­can.

When he was 16, he rode his bike to the DMV seek­ing a driver li­cense and pre­sented his green card. The clerk told him his ID was a fake and Var­gas learned the truth — he was an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant. His grand­par­ents told the young Var­gas to keep this part about him­self a se­cret. And so he did.

When he was 17 and a ju­nior in high school, his class watched a doc­u­men­tary about Har­vey Milk. Af­ter the film, Var­gas raised his hand and an­nounced he was gay. Coming out of this closet al­lowed Var­gas to thrive as a stu­dent and leader on his cam­pus where he was the only openly gay stu­dent.

He pur­sued a ca­reer in jour­nal­ism and even­tu­ally landed a job at the Washington Post. It was there where he was part of a team that re­ceived a Pulitzer Prize for its cov­er­age of the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings in 2007. But re­main­ing in the closet about his un­doc­u­mented sta­tus weighed on him. Var­gas was forced to lie to get a driver’s li­cense, a So­cial Se­cu­rity card and even­tu­ally it be­came eas­ier to sim­ply mark on forms he was a U.S. cit­i­zen.

As a re­porter, though, he watched with keen in­ter­est the world around him — the young Dream­ers coming out, pro­claim­ing pub­licly they were un­doc­u­mented and they were proud. They were Amer­i­cans.

In 2011, Var­gas came out of the closet again with a story in the New York Times in­form­ing the world he is an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant.

Last year, he and other Dream ac­tivists graced the cover of Time mag­a­zine for a cover story he wrote ti­tled, “We Are Amer­i­cans* (*Just not legally)” and he coined the term “un­doc­u­mented Amer­i­can.”

Var­gas said when that cover photo was be­ing taken, he was think­ing of Ellen DeGeneres and her Time cover photo with the head­line, “Yep, I’m gay.”

And he was proud.

Var­gas still faces the real pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing de­ported be­cause he is not a U.S. cit­i­zen, but he said what he fears the most is not do­ing enough to help pass the Dream Act, to en­sure un­doc­u­mented Amer­i­cans are rec­og­nized as hu­man be­ings and not sec­ond-class ci­ti­zens.

He said he also wants to work to help LGBT peo­ple “con­nect the dots” be­tween im­mi­gra­tion re­form and the fight for gay rights.

When The Ad­vo­cate linked to a story about him coming out as un­doc­u­mented, Var­gas said he read some of the com­ments that in­cluded state­ments such as “send this guy back home.”

“I had made the as­sump­tion that some­one gay would be sup­port­ive. I don’t think we have con­nected the dots as thor­oughly and ob­vi­ously as we should,” he said.

The peo­ple in power who want to leg­is­late dis­crim­i­na­tion against peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent — such as Asian or Latino — are the same peo­ple who be­lieve LGBT peo­ple do not de­serve full equal­ity, he said.

“The best kind of story is when the spe­cific be­comes uni­ver­sal,” he said. “You talk to a Dreamer and how do you not rec­og­nize the hu­man­ity? The fact is Amer­ica for us has al­ways been a fight. It is not some­thing that is eas­ily granted to us or we take for granted. This is some­thing we fight for on a daily ba­sis.”

This year is a crit­i­cal year for im­mi­gra­tion re­form, Var­gas said. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, who was re­spon­si­ble for de­port­ing more than 400,000 peo­ple last year, has said the big­gest re­gret he has from his first term was not pass­ing im­mi­gra­tion re­form.

To­day, fam­i­lies are still be­ing ripped apart be­cause the fed­eral government de­ports fam­ily mem­bers out of the coun­try. But Asian and Latino vot­ers helped cat­a­pult Obama back into the White House and they will not rest un­til re­form comes. There is no more time for re­gret, Var­gas said.

As a po­lit­i­cal re­porter cov­er­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Var­gas said he talked to many Repub­li­can vot­ers in Iowa who asked him, “Where did my coun­try go?”

“I look Asian and my name is Jose and they are ask­ing me this? I don’t know what coun­try you’re talk­ing about,” he said. “Im­mi­gra­tion can­not be di­vorced from the fact that the coun­try looks dif­fer­ent — browner, Asian, gayer as more peo­ple come out. The sooner we em­brace that, the bet­ter for all of us.

“I know the hell I went through and we have all gone through all kinds of hell,” Var­gas said. “In the strug­gle, a lot of young peo­ple risk their lives to be treated as equal, to be seen as a hu­man be­ing. That’s what this is about.”

Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist Jose An­to­nio Var­gas, an un­doc­u­mented Amer­i­can and a gay man, founded the non­profit group Defin­ing Amer­ica to el­e­vate and re­frame the im­mi­gra­tion con­ver­sa­tion. (Photo by Gerry Salva Cruz)

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