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Opinion | Immigration activist poses important questions to students on undocumented citizens

By Jose Antonio Vargas
On April 25, 2014

At every juncture in the fight for civil rights and human dignity, young people-especially college students-have helped define history by speaking up, coming out, and calling for change.

That was the case with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with the formation of groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized sit-ins at racially segregated lunch counters. "Young people were at the heart of that movement," Rep. John Lewis, who mobilized sit-ins and served as a chairman of SNCC once told me.

That has been the case with the LGBT rights movement. Gay Straight Alliance chapters (GSAs)  across the country, with straight allies advocating for their LGBT friends, classmates and relatives, have played a key role in reshaping attitudes and broadening the conversation around LGBT issues. The GSA movement started in San Francisco in 1998, the same year "Will & Grace" hit the airwaves and made the necessary cultural argument that for every Will Truman, there's a Grace Adler--the straight best friend, the ally.

But what about immigrant rights, one of the defining civil rights movements of our time, inexorably linked to a demographically evolving America? America looks the way it does right now because of immigrants, documented and undocumented. Like the fight for LGBT equality and the advancement of women's rights, this increasingly diverse, hyper-connected Millennial generation has grown up listening to the national debate about "border security" and "illegal aliens." What are college students in campuses and communities across America doing to advocate for fair and humane treatment of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants-many of whom are their relatives, friends and classmates?

Since disclosing my undocumented status in the New York Times Magazine-and forming the Define American campaign-I've visited more than 100 colleges and universities in all regions of the country. At each stop, whether in the South, at the University of Georgia in Athens, or the Midwest, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, I've engaged students and asked them to connect the dots between their own immigrant backgrounds and the struggle of undocumented immigrants today.

Last month, I visited Miami University, the alma mater of Rep. Paul Ryan (R), one of the most powerful leaders in the country. Miami U holds a special place in the Civil Rights Movement; some 50 years ago, during the Freedom Summer of 1964, more than 800 volunteers gathered at the Western College for Women (now Western Campus of Miami University) to prepare for African-American voter registration in the South. During my visit at this university, I spoke about Ellis Island, our country's first immigration station, where nearly 1 in 3 Americans can trace their European ancestors during one of the largest recorded migrations in history. "My name's Ryan," Ryan once said about his own immigrant background. "I'm here because the potatoes stopped growing in the 1850s in Ireland." Indeed.

Between 1892 and 1954, about 12 million undocumented Europeans-white people-crossed the border known as the Atlantic Ocean and landed on Ellis Island without papers. Most didn't speak English; they needed translators to pass basic literacy test. Many had little to no money. But they were inspected, registered and, with various degree of struggle, welcomed to America. Now, nearly 60 years later, America is faced with the migration of yet another 12 million people-not from only Europe but mostly from across the world, particularly from Latin America and Asia. An estimated 100,000 undocumented workers live in Ohio,  contributing about $104 million in state and local taxes. They call Ohio home, they drive in Ohio's freeways, they attend Ohio public schools, they shop and buy at Ohio stores.

On Monday, I will be back at Miami U for a special screening of "DOCUMENTED," a documentary I've been working on for three years. After the screening, I hope to engage students, faculty and community members. I will answer every question I am posed. But I have a few questions of my own: What can you do to help your undocumented neighbors? What is your role in this immigrant rights movement? How do you define American?

Vargas, the writer and director of "DOCUMENTED," is the founder of Define American, a non-profit media and culture campaign about immigration and citizenship. Email him at jose@defineamerican.com

Check out the trailer to "DOCUMENTED" below:


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