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2013 Spring Issue 1 (April 12, 2013)

“How Do We Define ‘American?’”

April 15, 2013
By Kaitlyn Gerber

“In 21st America, diversity is destiny,” Jose Antonio Vargas told a rapt audience last Thursday. “Americans are united by their experiences in this country.”

Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, returned to Carleton to speak about immigration, diversity, and what it means to be an American citizen. Students packed into Boliou to hear Vargas speak.

“I’ve never heard a talk like Vargas’s in my life,” said Ned Heckman ‘13. “Right after, I went home to learn how immigration has impacted my home community.” Part of Vargas’s speaking power, he added, was that he was both “hilarious and hardhitting,” unafraid to tackle controversial issues openly and honestly.

Born in the Philippines, Vargas came to the United States at age twelve to live with his grandparents in California, where he attended school. Four years later, Vargas discovered while applying for a driver’s license that his green card had been forged—and that he would need to hide his true identity in order to avoid deportation and pursue the American dream.

In 2011, after he had been in America for nearly eighteen years, Vargas decided to reveal his story in an essay, titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” which he submitted to the New York Times Magazine.

While Vargas talked about his own past, he also spent much of Thursday’s talk exploring what the concept of “American” truly meant, noting that although he himself is not an American citizen, he identifies as an American because of his experiences Vargas was originally scheduled to deliver convocation last fall; however, he was stopped by police for wearing earbuds as he drove to campus. Police discovered that he was driving on a suspended license and briefly arrested him, rendering him unable to deliver convocation. Vargas was released shortly afterwards.

Although students were disappointed, Vargas and the Office of Intercultural Life worked together to reschedule his appearance at Carleton, resulting in Thursday’s talk.

Much of Vargas’s talk also focused on immigration laws, and the difficult of living in America without legal status. To illustrate his point, he told an entertaining story about using a faked social security card to enter a White House Press Banquet.

“I thought the talk had many interesting insights on the life of undocumented immigrants and the meaning of being an immigrant,” said Ben Strauss ‘16, who attended the talk.

“He emphasized the importance of documentation--so much that he had to have a forged social security card to get a job working in reporting, evenl though he still cannot leave the country to visit his family. That really stood out to me,” he said.

Ultimately, Vargas’s talk touched many students and spurred talk on immigration reform on campus.

“He was a great speaker, and he really made me think about immigration policy, which isn’t something we tend to be concerned about here,” said Evan Summers ‘14.

Strauss agreed. “I hadn’t really thought about a lot of the issues he’d mentioned.,” he said. “I thought the talk had many interesting insights on the life of undocumented immigrants and the meaning of being an American.”

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