Immigration reform activist Jose Antonio Vargas spoke at to a near-capacity crowd at Los Altos High School last weekend, advocating for swift, comprehensive and fair changes to current U.S. immigration policies.
In his speech, titled "Not Legal. Not Leaving," Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who discovered as a teen that he'd been brought to the United States illegally, discussed the future of immigration law in America and the way immigrants are talked about and perceived in the media.
It was an emotional talk, as Vargas identified aspects of the current immigration debate he sees as ironic, illogical and downright unjust -- sometimes laughing, sometimes scowling and sometimes holding back tears. He recounted his own story as well as those of people he's encountered while conducting research for his current project, "Define American," which seeks to paint a more complex and multicultural picture of modern America than is usually seen on television, movies or in the news.
His words drew a standing ovation from the crowd, and served as inspiration for at least a few high school and college students who said they could relate to Vargas' experience as an immigrant living in America illegally.
Miriam Amaya and Max Blumenstein both said they walked out of the event feeling better about themselves. Amaya, a senior at Los Altos High School, said she is very close to the immigration debate, and was encouraged by Vargas' words.
Blumenstein, a junior at Mountain View High School, identified himself as bisexual and said he was inspired by the talk. Seeing someone like Vargas speak so openly about growing up gay is reflective of the Mountain View and Los Altos community's tolerance, he said.
As he neared the end of his speech at Los Altos High School's Eagle Theater on Nov. 18, Vargas apologized if what he was about to do might be embarrassing.
"Pat Hyland," Vargas began, addressing the former principal of his alma mater, Mountain View High School. "Please stand up."
Help along the way
The Filipino-born, Mountain View-raised Vargas called out all those in the audience who had served as his own personal underground railroad over the years -- helping him find the money he would need to go to college when it was clear he would not be able to get government aid, teaching him to drive and then driving him up to Oregon where he could lie about his identity to obtain a driver's license, and otherwise assisting or encouraging Vargas on his journey to become a top journalist and one of the "most famous" illegal immigrants.
As the 10 or so people stood up in the 300-seat auditorium, he said: "They didn't need a passport or a green card to treat me as a human being or as an American."
Vargas came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 12 years old. His mother sent him to live with his grandparents, "because she wanted a better life for me." He was able to stay in the country, attend college and ultimately work for a series of increasingly prestigious news organizations -- beginning as an intern at the Mountain View Voice and going on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Virginia Tech shootings in the Washington Post and to write a profile of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in Vanity Fair.
"I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to this school district," he said, singling out Rich Fischer, the former superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District. "Rich taught me how to drive," Vargas said, becoming emotional as he acknowledged that he could not have accomplished so much in his 20 years in this country without his support network.
Many like him
Vargas said his story is quite typical. All over the United States, there are people living just like he has lived -- in fear that they will be caught and sent back to a place they don't really remember. These people have friends and relatives who help them find ways to earn money, to obtain false Social Security numbers and drivers' licenses.
Finding a just solution to the immigration issue should not only be a priority for illegal immigrants -- a term Vargas takes umbrage with, preferring "undocumented immigrant." He said anyone who cares for someone in a similar situation has a stake in the issue.
"Illegal immigration" is a term he says is "imprecise" and downright cruel. "Something goes terribly wrong when you categorize human beings as 'illegal,'" he said. "Words matter a lot."
He ended by striking a confident tone, saying that he firmly believes President Barack Obama will pass comprehensive immigration reform within a year, and that even those who now vehemently oppose such reform will either eventually come around or fade away as they are replaced by a much more tolerant generation.
In an email to the Voice Vargas said his confidence about immigration reform comes from a number of observations.
He wrote that politicians and pundits from both sides of the political spectrum were talking about immigration reform after Obama was re-elected. Obama carried the Latino vote because of his progressive views, Vargas said, and Romney failed to carry the Latino vote (and perhaps important demographics) because of his conservative immigration stance.
Vargas' confidence seemed to rub off on Amaya, the Los Altos High School senior. "I'm affected -- he's so open and free about it. I know a lot of people who are scared to address this topic and he's not. He makes it feel like it's OK."
Solutions going forward
Vargas said he believes in the need for borders. "A country needs to have borders," he wrote. "But a country like America, which was built and is replenished by immigrants, must seriously and honestly reform its immigration process, especially in a connected, globalized economy in the digital era."
"Reform, in my mind, comes in two forms. First, creating a fair, common-sense process in which undocumented people like me are allowed to come forward, make ourselves known, pay whatever back taxes we may owe, maybe even pay a fine, learn to speak English and get in the back of a line for legalization and citizenship -- without bumping someone who's been waiting for legally moved to America. Second, reform means addressing the economic needs of our country without sacrificing the ideals that make America great -- that means, creating a green card system that makes sense not only for engineers but also for migrant farm workers."
In addition to advocating for his vision of immigration reform, Vargas plans to continue making documentaries through his Define American project, including an as yet unnamed documentary on what it means to be white in America. He also plans to write a memoir.