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Vargas discusses immigration, empathy

At a lecture on Wednesday, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas explored how to develop empathy and understanding in an increasingly diverse country.

“I traffic in empathy,” Vargas said.


Since coming out as a gay, undocumented immigrant, Vargas has written about his story in numerous news publications, including the front cover ‘We Are Americans’ issue of Time Magazine. He has also founded the media and culture organization Define American, as a means of using the power of storytelling to address the politicized issue of immigration.

Vargas noted that he is “here illegally without government authorization”.

According to Vargas, his Filipino mother paid for him to travel from the Philippines to the United States when he was 12, so that he could have a better life. His grandfather, who was already living in the US, arranged for him to have a fake Filipino passport, green card, and US social security number.

He shared that when he had first publicized his story has an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times, he had made sure to pay all of his credit card bills, and pack his bags to prepare for the worst.

He added that what he was not expecting was silence from the government. When he called the Department of Homeland Security to ask why they hadn’t deported him, DHS gave no comment.

“I started thinking, that’s a metaphor for how most Americans think of us. No comment—as long as someone is mowing your lawn and baby-sitting your kids and cleaning your offices,” he said.


“As a journalist, I’m aghast at how the media has covered the topic of immigration.” He explained that numerical facts and language are powerful in changing the mindsets of people.

For example, he said, people don’t know that there are actually more Americans going to Mexico than Mexicans entering the United States. Moreover, 40% of immigrants didn’t cross that border; they flew here as Vargas did, under a visa. On top of that, unauthorized workers that are labeled as being in this country ‘illegally’ contribute 100 billion dollars to US social security funding.

According to Vargas, figures such as these aren’t included in news outlets; the story of the immigrant has not yet been integrated into the narrative of this country.

However, Vargas explained that in the fight for immigration, it is not just the undocumented people that need to come out, but also their allies— their mentors, teachers, and friends, who need to come out and support them.

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“When I travel around the country, what’s fascinating to me is when people use the language ‘’Mexican’ and ‘illegal’ interchangeably,” he said.

He also noted that as a journalist, he engages people first by asking people questions, and then, by listening to them.

He said that he typically prefers to be interviewed by talk show hosts such as Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, and speak at Republican tea party events where “people are angry, they want someone to blame, and they think it’s me.”

“Unless we humanize this issue, and personalize this issue, we’re not going to get anywhere,” he said.

He said that on a college campus, generally people are more willing to be engaged, but the issue remains in the intricacies of language and how you approach the topic.

As an example, Vargas noted that he couldn’t get white young people to talk about immigration unless he made the issue about white privilege first.

Vargas has made a documentary entitled ‘White People,’ exploring perception of white privilege.

The lecture took place in Robertson Hall at 7:30pm. It sponsored by Princeton University Latinx Perspective Organization, the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, Campus Conversations on Identities Public Programming Series, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, LGBT Center, Princeton DREAM Team, Program in Latin American Studies, Program in Latino Studies, and the USG Projects Board.