Pulitzer Prize winner and illegal immigrant speaks at UA

By Michael Vine

TUSCALOOSA — Undocumented Filipino Jose Antonio Vargas wants to start a conversation in Alabama – not just about HB-56, a controversial immigration law passed last year, but about gay rights as well. Although if you ask him, that’s not really it either.

“I find it so interesting that we call it ‘gay rights,’” he said to a group of students in Reese Phifer Hall one recent afternoon. “It’s human rights.”

Vargas, a current writer for Time.com, spoke to journalism and mass communication students before scheduled talks at Gorgas Library and on the campus of the University of Alabama in Birmingham. He was promoting his current online project, “Is This Alabama?”

It’s all part of Vargas’s quest to increase awareness of the undocumented immigrant since he revealed his own undocumented status in 2010.

“We’re looking for someone to blame, and immigrants have become that,” he said. “…Is it really about us? Or is it more about you?”

Before he said anything at all, Vargas showed students a clip of James Baldwin, an author and civil rights activist in the 1960s, to help show that these issues aren’t as different from those 50 years ago as they may think.

He then spoke for about 45 minutes about what led him to “come out,” or admit that he was undocumented, what he’s been doing since, and where he wants to go.

Vargas told students he wrote for the Washington Post, covering the 2008 election and the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, until he decided he could no longer live in the D.C. area. He explained that his biggest problem was seeing all the monuments around the city every day. The monuments were constructed to remind people what America was about, he said, but did no such thing for an undocumented immigrant.

“What those buildings say to you, they don’t say to me,” he said. “People say Washington is the most powerful city in the world, and I hated feeling so powerless.”

Though his tour through Alabama focuses mainly on the immigration law, this talk was evenly spread out between gay rights and immigrant rights, the two causes for which he says he’s become a “walking uncomfortable conversation.”

At one point Vargas was asked by George Daniels, the professor who arranged the event, whether he’d considered becoming “legal.”

“Why don’t you do it the right way?” Daniels asked.

Vargas explained that though there are some who have told undocumented immigrants to “get in line” and legalize themselves, the fact is that it’s simply not possible.

“They don’t tell us where the line is,” he said, “because there isn’t one.”