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Pulitzer Prize winner to speak about immigration

March 7, 2013

The Helen Wyman Performing Arts and Speaker Series at UW-River Falls will be hosting a free event with speaker Jose Vargas presenting “How Do We Define American?”

The Wyman Series event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13, in the Riverview Ballroom at the University Center. Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, will share his personal story dealing with immigration in America along with his non-profit organization, Define American.

Jose Antonio Vargas
Jose Vargas will be speaking on March 13 in the Riverview Ballroom in the University Center as part of the Wyman Series. Vargas will share his personal story about immigration in America.

“I’m really excited about this because in the past, people like him would never have been heard in the media,” said Patricia Berg, a professor of journalism. “Yet his life story is the future of America.”

The journalism department is also using this event as the Working Journalist Seminar which they encourage students to attend every semester.

“We strive to get a variety of people working in journalism with different life experiences,” Berg said. “[Vargas] has a unique experience.”

According to the Wyman Series website, Vargas was born in the Philippines and sent by his mother to live with his grandparents in Silicon Valley. It wasn’t until Vargas was 16-years-old while applying for his learner’s permit, that he realized his green card was no longer valid.

In order to avoid being deported and to follow his dreams of achieving a career in journalism, Vargas knew he needed to hide his identity. He exposed his true identity and experience in an essay for the New York Times Magazine titled, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” which attracted the attention of not just nation-wide media and politics, but world-wide as well.

“In some ways, we can say that the United States is a country made of immigrants,” said history professor, Betty Bergland. “We didn’t have restrictions on immigration until the late 18th or early 19th centuries.”

Bergland teaches a course in the history of immigration and history of U.S. policies and she thinks it’s important when we think of immigration today, to think about it in a historical context as well.

Immigrants from all over the world have made America their home, but not all immigrants have been accepted. As early as 1882 with the start of the Chinese Exclusion Act it has been a challenge for immigrants.

Since then, different regulations, laws and acts have been set in place and removed to help regulate immigration. From 1924 to the mid 1960s the Johnson-Reed Act had been in place to cap the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. and it completely excluded those immigrants from Asia.

After the 1960s, there have been regulations and laws put in place to try and correct the past restrictions, and reunite families that may have been separated through previous regulations.

“There have been efforts made to make it a more just system,” Bergland said.

“Unfortunately the racial attitudes toward immigration have still persisted.”

According to Vargas’ non-profit organization, America’s immigration system is broken and, in order to fix it, a bigger and more effective conversation needs to be brought forth.

His organization states that it “brings new voices into the immigration conversation, shining a light on a growing 21st Century Underground Railroad. These voices that it talks about are “American citizens who are forced to fill in where our broken immigration system fails. From principals to pastors, these everyday immigrant allies are simply trying to do the right thing. Some are driven by a biblical call to social justice, while others believe this is a moral imperative. They, like Harriet Tubman and countless brave Americans before them, are willing to take personal risks in order to do what is right. These heroes need to be the center of this national conversation. Together, we are going to fix a broken system.”

Bergland said there is an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and they, like Vargas, are initially fearful to identify themselves as undocumented due to the consequences. Bergland also explained that some of the biggest misconceptions of undocumented citizens are that they don’t pay taxes, use American services, take jobs and drain local economies.

“They do pay taxes through sales tax and employment tax,” Bergland said. “They often take the jobs most Americans don’t want, such as working in the fields, and they help the economy, too.”

Both Berg and Bergland are looking forward to this event and how Vargas’ presentation not only introduces the topic of immigration but they also hope it peeks the curiosity of students to learn more about this topic.

“The make-up of what it means to be American is changing very, very rapidly,” Berg said. “He (Vargas) has a powerful story of being an outsider who won a Pulitzer Prize.”

For more information on Vargas and his non-profit organization, Define American, visit www.defineamerican.com.