Tears fell in Page Auditorium as Jose Antonio Vargas recalled his experiences as an undocumented immigrant and his efforts to change the conversation surrounding immigration.
Vargas discussed his individual experiences and struggles as a result of his immigration status. An award-winning journalist, he gained even greater media attention after he “came out” in 2011 in a New York Times Magazine article titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”
"If they say I can't be here because I don't have any papers, what if I'm on the paper?" Vargas said, explaining his motivation to become a journalist.
Originally from the Philippines, Vargas' mother sent him at the age of 12 to live with his grandparents and pursue a better life. Vargas noted that most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States came with a similar purpose.
Vargas criticized U.S. immigration policy as a "broken, untenable system," that is defined by "pieces of paper" that can fail to account for one's national identity.
The threat of being caught by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement made his life a "crazy limbo," Vargas said. He recounted stories of how he eluded discovery while working his way into the journalism industry, ultimately winning a Pulitzer Prize for his breaking news coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. For example, when he first began his job search, he used a doctored social security card, and a few years later, obtained a driver’s license by traveling to Oregon, where little documentation is required.
Eventually, however, the weight of this secret proved too great and Vargas decided to publicly reveal his immigration status.
“Sometimes you risk your life to free yourself from it," Vargas said.
Vargas has yet to be confronted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In his documentary titled “Documented," he called the agency to ask if they would deport him and was told “no comment.” Vargas noted the government's refusal to engage in conversation about what he considers to be “the most controversial, yet least talked about” issue in America.
During the event, Vargas called up Emilio Vicente, a student from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Vicente, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was featured—along with Vargas—in a June 2012 issue of Time Magazine featuring Americans without documents.
Vicente spoke about "One State, One Rate," a campaign he is spearheading that calls on UNC to grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who live in North Carolina. Currently undocumented NC residents are charged $21,782 more than those with documents.
"What is Duke going to do?" Vargas said. "The rivalry aside, I think we can agree that this is the right thing to do."
Under current laws, Vargas, like many other undocumented immigrants, has no direct path to citizenship even if he makes significant contributions to society.
"Immigration reform means we can come out of the shadows to be a part of this community," Vicente said.
At the end of the open discussion portion of the evening, a woman from the audience approached the microphone and revealed her own story of undocumented life, moving from Los Angeles to North Carolina, raising two daughters and dealing with divorce.
"I'm tired of working under the table," she said. "I'm trying to do different things."
Despite refusing to call himself a “leader or an advocate,” since the publication of his 2011 article, Vargas has worked to transform the immigration debate from a question of numbers to a question of “integration, citizenship and identity."
In addition, Vargas co-founded Define American, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing dialogue about immigration and what it means to be "American."
First-year Nicole Bautista, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen from the Dominican Republic, said she appreciated the genuineness of the evening's dialogue.
"The American Dream is the ability to do what you want to do," she said.
Vargas urged the audience to think critically about issues of identity."Who were we? Where are we? Where are we going?" he said. “How do you define American?"