Helping Others

Undocumented Pulitzer Prize winner warns of ‘humanitarian crisis’

Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, filmmaker, and immigration rights activist from San Francisco, holds up his California driver’s license as he speaks to supporters of fair immigration reform at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 18. He will speak at Sacramento State on Monday.
Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, filmmaker, and immigration rights activist from San Francisco, holds up his California driver’s license as he speaks to supporters of fair immigration reform at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 18. He will speak at Sacramento State on Monday. Associated Press file

Jose Antonio Vargas left the Philippines for Northern California at 12 and has spent 23 years fighting to become a legal resident. He hasn’t succeeded, despite sharing in a Pulitzer Prize at The Washington Post in 2008.

Now he says he is fighting for thousands of “Dreamers” – young undocumented immigrants brought here as children who finished high school and legally obtained their work permits but could face deportation by the Trump administration, which has called for the removal of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

On Monday, Vargas – founder of Define American, a nonprofit media and culture organization built around immigration and citizenship, and editor of #EmergingUS – will be the keynote speaker at the Keeping The Dream Alive Summit from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Sacramento State’s University Union Ballroom.

The summit is sponsored by the school’s Dreamer Resource Center and Full Circle Project to help the campus’s estimated 700 undocumented students, plus those whose parents are undocumented, said program coordinator Norma Mendoza.

The program provides attorneys who consult with students who qualify for legal residence under the Obama administration’s executive order, Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Vargas, 35, spoke with The Bee last week.

Q: What happens next for undocumented people?

A: The palpable fear, anger and anxiety that many immigrants felt the day after the election has given way to a real determination to fight. There are 2.5 million undocumented people in California, 6.3 percent of the state’s population.

We talk about undocumented immigrants as if they exist in a vacuum. We don’t connect them to the families they belong to. We have about 700,000 DACA holders nationwide, half of whom live in California. If Trump deports them along with the more than 10 million other undocumented immigrants, it will be a humanitarian crisis unlike anything this country has ever seem.

There are 1.8 million undocumented in Texas alone. Why is it we put a sign on the U.S.-Mexico border saying “Keep Out,” and another one 10 steps later that says “Help Wanted”? We’re dependent on cheap labor. We can’t have it both ways.

Q: What has the media missed in covering this issue?

A: We have not had honest conversations on immigration; they’ve not only been factless but are lacking a moral center. Trump ran the most simplistic campaign … built on building this wall as if all undocumented people come from Mexico, when the fastest-growing groups are Asian, about 1.3 of the 11 million.

And the media didn’t thoroughly challenge the narrative Trump sold us that these immigrants are hurting us economically. So long as people are taking care of your kids, mowing your lawns, harvesting your crops, most Americans don’t really want to know who we are.

Many of us are business owners. I employ 15 people, two of whom are DACA, the rest are U.S. citizens. I am a job creator. The Social Security Administration reports that people with fake Social Security numbers have contributed $100 billion in the last decade to the Social Security fund. I started working when I was 17, am 35 now and will never get any of that money.

We’ve also bought into the narrative that undocumented immigrants are more dangerous. There is no proof that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than native people. Undocumented drivers are the safest around because we’re afraid of the cops – we don’t want to be pulled over. I’m so freaked out, I drive with the windows up when I blare Jay Z and Beyoncé.

Trump says he wants to get rid of criminal aliens – what does that mean? People caught smoking marijuana, people with a DUI or those driving over the speed limit or without a valid license?

Q: What’s the best-case scenario?

A: It’s going to cost billions of dollars to deport us. Sacramento, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and other cities can’t function without undocumented immigrants. Trump hasn’t defined criminal alien – I’m not from Mars. The fundamental question in the Trump presidency is how we define Americans.

The people who came to this country and stole the Indians’ land and (brought over slaves) were looking for sanctuary. In the next few months, we are going to find out who our real friends are. All of our neighbors, classmates, teachers, co-workers, employers, the people we go to church with and shop with must stand up and speak out.

What’s ironic is Trump seems to have employed many of us. We have learned the American people are struggling and want somebody to blame, and Trump told them to blame immigrants. I pray to the altar of James Baldwin, who wrote: “Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

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