Pulitzer-prize journalist talks immigration, life as undocumented resident

Sean Hermann/For CU-CitizenAccess

Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas speaks on immigration Thursday night, Oct. 25, 2012, at the University YMCA. Vargas publicly announced he was undocumented in an essay he wrote for The New York Times in June 2011.

By Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess - For journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, a driver’s license meant working for the Washington Post - a job he really wanted. 

The license was required. 

So 10 years ago, Vargas went to Oregon and got one. At the time, Oregon was one of the few states that issued licenses to undocumented residents. That license expired and he later obtained one from Washington State.

Vargas, who is Filipino and moved undocumented to the U.S. in the 1990s, spoke Thursday night at the University YMCA to a standing-room only crowd of students and community members about immigration and his life as an undocumented resident.

Vargas gained national attention when he wrote in June 2011 about his experiences in an essay for The New York Times and later this summer for Time Magazine. Vargas’ Washington license was revoked and he now travels on a Filipino passport. (Earlier this month, Vargas was arrested in Minnesota for driving without a license

He can no longer work for any company; Vargas now spends his time working independently on a documentary.

For the 12 million or so undocumented workers, a driver’s license is necessary -- to get to the grocery store, to drive kids to school, to live, Vargas told the audience last night. He said he was advocating, “that the people who built this country be given a process to say ‘I’m here, I’m not an enemy.””

His visit to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus is part of the 2012 University YMCA’s fall series, “Beyond the Rhetoric: Key Issues in the 2012 Elections.”

“People like me aren’t really coming out, we’re just letting you in,” Vargas said. “We’re just kind of showing you what it’s like to live without papers in America.” 

Vargas’ visit comes at a time when Central Illinois communities are grappling with the impact of Secure Communities, or programs like it. Secure Communities is a federal initiative that aims to remove non-U.S. citizens with a criminal history from the U.S.

Under the program, county sheriff’s departments hold undocumented arrestees for up to 48-hours on behalf of federal immigration authorities. Those arrested then may be released or transferred to a holding facility until a hearing before the immigration court. 

By the end of next year, all states are expected to participate in Secure Communities.

The program has local undocumented residents fearful and that’s why Vargas’ visit is so important, said Francisco Baires, community programs director at the University YMCA. He said

Vargas is a recognized public face of the issue of immigration and can help broaden the discussion in an educated way.

He brings “the voices and stories of people from all over the country going through these issues, not just Latinos,” Baires said. 

Vargas said that to make a change in the immigration policies, there needs to be real conversations with everyone.

“Ball is now in your court, we are here ... we are not going to self-deport, it is not going to happen,” Vargas said.  “So what do you want to do with us and how do you solve this? So let’s talk.”

Vargas will be speaking Friday at noon at the University YMCA, 1001 S. Wright St., C. He will also be interviewed at 10 a.m. Friday on Illinois Public Media during Focus.