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Jose Antonio Vargas Gives Address at LSU Ogden Honors College Convocation

Often referred to as the “most famous illegal” in America, Vargas shared how lying, passing, and hiding led him to where he is now
Jose Antonio Vargas Gives Address at LSU Ogden Honors College Convocation

Jose Antonio Vargas at the 2019 Convocation

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker, and CEO of the nonprofit Define American, addressed the Ogden Honors College’s largest convocation ever September 10, the culmination of a visit that included Q&A sessions with Honors 2000 classes and smaller events with faculty and students. Vargas is the author of Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, selected as the College’s 2019 “shared read.” Vargas said he was impressed by how thoroughly and critically students engaged with the book, as evidenced by their questions.

“What surprised me most was how fastidiously students had read my book, which is the highest compliment you can give a writer,” Vargas said. “Based on the questions I was asked about the book, it was clear that the students had wrestled with all the issues and questions I raised.”

“The purpose of the shared read is to get difficult issues and conversations before the incoming class,” Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle said. “Dear America certainly fits the bill, and got a very intense and powerful dialog started on this campus. Jose also has a rare ability to connect with students from all backgrounds and political persuasions. It will be hard to top this visit and this shared read author.”

Emily Clarke, an OHC and first-year international studies student, said her experience reading the book was unusual. “Unlike many of the books I have read, the emotions I felt while reading Dear America were inspired by the present, not fiction or history,” Clarke said. “Jose Antonio Vargas shed light on one of the most relevant topics in American politics, but his writing also eliminated politics. The book humanized the situation many Americans regard as a ‘hot topic’ in politics and it also reminded readers of our ignorance. It was a humbling yet convincing biography that changed my understanding of immigration and the definition of ‘citizen.’”

The theme of the HNRS 2000 class series this year is “A House Divided? Living Together in a Community.” The critical analysis course focuses on creating discussion around tough and divisive issues. With immigration figured as a prominent issue in the country today, students appreciated that the Ogden Honors College invited Vargas to the convocation and chose Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen as the shared read. 

“I just appreciated that the Ogden Honors College decided on this for the shared read and invited the speaker, especially because I feel like universities and institutions try to stay away from polarizing issues in politics, especially nowadays,” an anonymous undocumented student said. “It’s not even like they chose a side; it’s that they opened a dialogue and showed all of the students a different perspective that’s normally kind of shunned in the media.”

Clarke said it’s important for college-aged students to gain experience and knowledge, which are attained through understanding multiple perspectives and topics. “This is partially achieved by exposing college students to intellectuals who specialize in a multitude of fields and come from different backgrounds,” she said. “Jose Antonio Vargas shared his mission and story with us, which helped students find empathy and expand our understanding of the world in which we live.”

A packed LSU Union Theater of Ogden Honors College students, faculty, and members of the Baton Rouge community also heard remarks by Dean Jonathan Earle and Executive Vice President and Provost Dr. Stacia Haynie. Haynie asserted that this was the true welcome of students to the Honors College, and that there was no better way to do so than by coming together to hear Vargas’ address. 

Vargas opened with having a show of hands in the room to see who was an American citizen. After nearly every hand in the room was raised, he recounted his story of after four years of living in America and believing that he had documentation, he found out that he wasn’t actually a documented citizen. He shared how his family made the difficult decision of sending him to America from the Philippines in order to give him a better life, not knowing the consequences, and hoping that he would eventually marry to gain citizenship.

“Dear America gives an impacting image on being undocumented in America,” Jaime Pellicero-Calvo, a third-year Ogden Honors and international student, said. “Like Vargas, I started my American journey at the age of 12, so I was able to identify with the culture clash of integrating into a new society. As a documented immigrant, I remain cautious of what my legal boundaries are, but undocumented immigrants go through multiple dimensions of anxiety and emotional trauma to remain in the U.S.” 

Vargas continued with his story and recalled how he graduated from college, became a journalist, and eventually grew tired of lying about his citizenship status. In 2011, he wrote an essay published in The New York Times Magazine, where he announced he was an undocumented citizen, titled “Outlaw.”

“Against the advice of 28 immigration lawyers, I decided to come out for the second time in my life,” Vargas, who came out as gay in high school, said.

He explained to the convocation audience that the lawyers adamantly advised against his plan because admitting to multiple cases of fraud would ensure that he will never find a path to legal citizenship, even if he married a U.S. citizen.

“Legality is a matter of power, not justice,” the author said, listing off formerly legal atrocities that existed to benefit those in power, such as slavery. 

Pellicero-Calvo commented on this part of the convocation. “It reminded me that the general acceptance of laws is not always enough to justify their validity. I often question the reasoning behind policies, whether at the governmental level or even student-led ones. Having that moment of skepticism is important. It is cliché, but as the future leaders of tomorrow, we need to know how to think,” Pellicero-Calvo said.

Overall, he called on the audience to understand that immigration is more than just politics or an issue to choose a side on; it is about people.

“We live in a culture that blurs the lines between immigration as a political, partisan and polarizing issue and immigrants as a people,” Vargas said. “The way we talk about it, they are one and the same. I hope that by reading the book, students understand that immigrants are human beings––we are dealing with human beings.”

Clarke said the book and convocation made her realize that we sometimes forget the obstacles and problems other people are facing.

“It’s easy to become absorbed with our lives and forget about the realities of the world except those that directly affect us. Presentations and books like Jose Antonio Vargas’ educate and remind us about realities that are not our own,” she said.

Vargas asserts that he would not be where he is in his life now, as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, college graduate and an award-winning filmmaker, without the help of kind and caring American citizens. He notes his boss at The New York Times, who chose to turn the other cheek to their human resources department regarding his citizenship, his grandparents, who paid thousands of dollars to have him smuggled here and to have a fake green card as well as teachers and mentors along the way.

“I was there, and I am here now, as a product of other people’s kindness,” Vargas said.

When asked if there was anything Vargas wanted to say to LSU students, the Baton Rouge community, or the state of Louisiana as a whole that was not in his convocation address, he said it plays an important part in defining what is “American.”

“Perhaps no region in our country is as caricatured as the American South,” he said. “As our country goes through a rebirth of sorts––at once demographic and democratic––the South plays a crucial role. How LSU students (and their families) define who and what is an American is will have tremendous consequences. Please engage and practice your citizenship.”

With LSU being his first stop, Vargas will continue his tour across the country addressing college students through the end of the year.