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'How do we define American?' Journalist addresses need to humanize immigrants as global migration increases

Six-year-old Sophie Cruz speaks during a rally in front of the Supreme Court next to her father, Raul Cruz, and supporter Jose Antonio Vargas in 2016.
Alex Wong
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Sophie Cruz, 6, speaks during a rally in front of the Supreme Court next to her father, Raul Cruz, and supporter Jose Antonio Vargas in 2016.

There were roughly 281 million international migrants in the world in 2020, according to the World Migration Report, meaning that 3.6% of the world's population is not living in their country of origin. That is twice as high as the migration population in 2000 that was estimated to be just over 170 million, says the report.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a large contributor to the global migration population is the Ukrainian crisis. As of March 25, 3.7 million refugees had fled the war-torn country.

Jose Antonio Vargas is an Emmy-nominated and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of “Define American,” a nonprofit organization that fights anti-immigrant hate through the power of storytelling. Vargas said what’s happening in Ukraine and watching the world react is a real-life example of the need to treat immigrants with dignity and the need to welcome them.

He will bring his message to Illinois State University when he speaks at the Asian Cultural dinner at 5 p.m. April 12 in the Brown Ballroom at Bone Student Center.

Vargas says not all immigrants are welcomed to new nations when they escape wars, climate change and economic hardship.

“I think with what’s happening in Ukraine and the refugees, the refugee situation in Europe, I think we’re seeing that we welcome certain kinds of people, but not other kinds of people. Race and class have a lot to do with that,” he said.

“We are living in a time that is the greatest migration in world history. Given that we live in a country that’s founded in the freedom of movement, I think we have a responsibility to help define what human rights is in the era of global migration. We have a responsibility to our own history to do that.”

Vargas experienced immigrating from the Philippines to the United States when he was 12 years old. At 16, he discovered he was undocumented, and began to discover the complexity of the immigration system.

A year later, Vargas was introduced to journalism and realized the significance behind telling others’ stories.

“So, being a journalist and getting a byline and basically writing my way into America, I thought of writing newspapers and seeing my name in print as a proof of existence because for so many undocumented people, we’re nameless, we’re faceless, (and) that we’re supposed to hide from you,” he said. “We’re not supposed to have our name on a piece of paper.”

Vargas said the term “undocumented” exposes that we live in a world that relies on identification, such as having a valid green card or passport.

“It’s fascinating that my Amazon prime membership is borderless, and I’m not. Capitalism is borderless. Goods, everything we buy is borderless. Streaming is borderless, for the most part. Yet people are not,” he said.

“I would argue that immigrants in this country, and undocumented immigrants in this country, live a system of reality that is wholly alien to most American citizens who take their driver’s licenses for granted. When the pandemic first started, and people started using the phrase ‘social distancing, I was like, undocumented people know a lot about that. We’ve been social distancing for years and decades from our family.”

Standing up for immigrant rights has become a central part of Vargas’ life. He took the bold move to come out as undocumented 11 years ago, the same time that he decided to create “Define American.”

Vargas said everyone carries some form of privilege, but the question behind discussing privilege that he asks others is “what are you willing to do to risk your privilege?”

“In some ways, I answered that question 11 years ago when I came out as undocumented and started ‘Define American’ and said, ‘Okay, here I am,’ kind of risking this,” Vargas said. “My goal was how do I tell this one specific story, my story, and how do I get other people to do that?”

Especially during the pandemic, he said people viewed immigrants as "essential workers," but not essential enough to have basic human rights.

“I think part of the problem is that we have seen immigrants as nothing but labor. I think interrogating that in your own lives, in your homes, at your workplaces, I think is really important,” Vargas said.

Through creating Define American, Vargas is challenging the narrative on how immigrants are perceived. Using the power of storytelling, he is trying to bring audiences to see the need to humanize immigrants and to see that an immigrant is somebody’s family member, not labor.

“You’re not talking about issues. I’m not an issue. Sometimes, I feel like when I talk about immigration, people start thinking about it as immigration reform. That’s an issue we haven’t solved. I’m actually not an issue that hasn’t been solved,” Vargas said. “I’m like a human being that’s trying to live my life with as much dignity as I possibly can.

“It’s a priority to have the labor, but it’s not a priority to see the people behind the labor.”

When it comes to understanding and listening to one another, Vargas said he does see evidence of Americans treating one another with this dignity that everyone, regardless of documentation status, deserves. His hope is that moving forward, seeing the story and the human behind the word “immigrant” is what people focus on.

“What happens is that people think of this federal problem, this unsolvable that’s been this third rail in American politics…. But locally, one on one, in schools where teachers are trying to find that scholarship for that undocumented student. In a church where that pastor is trying to figure out a way to support that family that has undocumented parents whose kids are U.S. citizens,” Vargas said. “It’s happening all the time, and I think our job is to create spaces for them to continue to happen.”

If it was not for his high school principal helping him find a scholarship, Vargas said he would not have gone to college. If it was not for a mentor who “basically risked his career so that I could have one,” he would have the journalism career he has today, he said.

These important figures in Vargas’ life did not refer to themselves as “allies” — that was not their language, he said. Rather, their language was to help a kid that needed help, and that is the attitude everyone needs to have regardless of someone’s immigration status.

“I think again, this is a question I’ve been asking all around the country for the last decade, is ‘How do we define American?’”

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021.
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