Undocumented journalist comes out

A Pulitzer-Price winning journalist, formerly with the Washington Post, publicly revealed that he has been living in the U.S. illegally for years. He’s not the first to annouce his status to the world in an effort to change the immigration reform debate.

In his magazine piece “My life as an undocumented immigrant,” Jose Antonio Vargas describes being sent off the to U.S. when he was 12 by his mother with a person she said was his uncle, but who later turned out to be a coyote.

Describing why he went public after keeping his secret for nearly two decades, he writes,

Last year I read about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act, a nearly decade-old immigration bill that would provide a path to legal permanent residency for young people who have been educated in this country. At the risk of deportation — the Obama administration has deported almost 800,000 people in the last two years — they are speaking out. Their courage has inspired me.

It’s easy to think of people living in the U.S. illegally as “day laborers and house cleaners,” as a former employer of Vargas writes in a column responding to the revelation.

But there are actually many young people like Vargas. They’re organizers, volunteers, Ivy League college students. They entered the U.S. illegally with their parents or stayed illegally after their visa expired. They have grown up “living like an American,” as one puts it. Some have been speaking out about their situation, such as the young adults organized in the Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago.

Young immigrants take the stage - main

I covered the Chicago group as they were organizing a demonstration in March 2010 to “come out of the shadows” and say publicly that they are undocumented. Others have written blog posts making the same announcement. A network of groups has continued to organize in support of the Dream Act.

IYJL Organizer Carla Navoa writes that she tried to reach out to Vargas about a month ago, but he didn’t respond to her Facebook messages or emails. Sounding disappointed, she writes

Although he’s inspired millions of people today, he could do so much for the (Asian Pacific Islander American)/immigrant youth community by connecting with our grassroots efforts.

Vargas story, of course, received a lot of attention — it’s hard to think of a more high-profile way to announce your status than an article on the New York Times’ homepage. It’ll be interesting to see whether his public coming-out, and his work with the group he started, Define American, will have an impact on the immigration reform debate.

The Dream Act, a beacon of hope for undocumented immigrant youth, has been before Congress in one form or another for 10 years now. It most recently failed to pass a Senate vote last December.

Immigrant youth speak out

They’re young, well-educated and in the country illegally. Immigrant youth in Chicago are not afraid to speak out about their situation. After they helped stop of their friends’ pending deportation, they founded the Immigrant Youth Justice League at the end of last year. The group organized a demonstration on March 10 to “come out of the shadows” and demand immigration reform.

My article Young immigrants take the stage explores this group of young people who have grown up in America and are now fighting to claim their place.

Two of them are Uriel and Jessica, two driven students who keep hitting barriers because of their unauthorized status. Watch Uriel tell his story, and get a glimpse at Jessica’s life.

When writing about illegal immigration, finding the right words to describe people is a particular challenge. How do we describe those in the country illegally? is my attempt at answering this question (an incomplete and tangled one, but I tried nonetheless).

You can find the whole project under the “immigrant students” tab at the top of the page.