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Communications and Marketing

Chicago Tribune covers Lake Forest College speaker

Jose Antonio Vargas recently gave a talk at the College about his experience as an undocumented immigrant, spurring media interest.

Undocumented immigrant who won Pulitzer Prize speaks at Lake Forest College

By Mark Lawton
Chicago Tribune

In 2008, Jose Antonio Vargas was among a group of reporters at The Washington Post who earned the Pulitzer Prize. On June 22, 2011, Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant in a column he wrote for The New York Times Magazine.

During a March 7 talk at Lake Forest College, Vargas, who said he remains undocumented, told his story to about 100 people.

“We were interested in providing an opportunity for our students to learn about immigration and some of the important issues about the national conversation about immigrants in the U.S.,” said Erin Hoffman, director of the college’s Office of Intercultural Relations.

Vargas said he is originally from the Philippines. In 1993, at age 12, he came to the United States to live with his grandparents – both naturalized U.S. citizens - in the Bay Area of California, he said. He thought he was in the United States legally and it wasn’t until he tried to get his driver’s permit at age 16 that he found out his green card was fake, he said.

He studied journalism and held different jobs before being hired at The Washington Post in June 2004 using fake documents, he said.

“Every time I got a job, I always filled out a form, and on every single form I lied,” Vargas said. “If I wanted a job, I had to lie. I checked ‘U.S. citizen’ on every form. I got to the point where it was a lot of fraud.”

A few years later and against his lawyer’s advice, he said he decided to publicly declare his undocumented status.

“I thought telling the truth about this from a personal perspective was necessary,” Vargas said.

He wrote the column for New York Times Magazine and later appeared on interviewed on TV by Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert.

“Then I prepared to get deported,” Vargas said. “I thought that was what would happen.”

It hasn’t, and Vargas said he doesn’t know why. However, he has twice been held while traveling through U.S. airports – once in McAllen, Texas, in July 2014, and before that at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in October 2012, according to Vargas and news reports.

“Under this (presidential) administration, I don’t know if I’ll be as lucky,” Vargas said.

Since leaving The Washington Post, he started Define American, a nonprofit that aims to “shift the conversation about immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America,” according to its website.

During his talk, Vargas spoke about what he described as false beliefs people have about immigrants.

One is that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes, he said. Undocumented immigrants paid an estimated $13 billion in payroll taxes to Social Security in 2010 while receiving only about $1 billion in benefit payments, according to a Social Security Administration report from April 2013.

A second belief is that most undocumented immigrants illegally crossed the Mexican border, he said.

“More than 40 percent of people here illegally overstayed their visa and didn’t cross the border,” Vargas said.

Nor were the largest percentage from Mexico, according to a 2015 Entry/Exit Overstay Report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, released in January 2016. The report shows that in 2015, nearly 7.9 million people from Canada overstayed their visas, followed by nearly 2.9 million from Mexico.

Another belief is that all or most undocumented immigrants are from Mexico, he said. According to the Pew Research Center, Mexicans accounted for 52 percent of undocumented immigrants in 2014, but the number of undocumented Mexicans has been shrinking since at least 2009. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants from other countries have increased, according to the Pew Research Center.

Hoffman said Vargas brought humanity to the topic of immigration.

“I think that’s rare to have the chance to hear from the perspective of undocumented people,” Hoffman said. “I think that was particularly interesting and helpful in understanding this challenging situation on immigration, particularly related to undocumented people.”