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Exclusive: Jose Antonio Vargas Talks #EmergingUS, Political Activism, and Immigrant Rights

In 2011, Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas revealed he was undocumented in an essay for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Since then, Vargas has started two organizations – #EmergingUS and Define American – dedicated to fighting for immigration rights. He now finds himself in Des Moines, Iowa, joining the political conversation just in time for the caucuses. Vargas spoke with we are mitú and discussed the purpose of #EmergingUS and his constant fight to help other undocumented immigrants.

Why is it important for Define American to be in Iowa right now?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Undocumented Iowa, a short documentary, was produced by #EmergingUS, a new digital platform on race, immigration, and identity that will launch very soon. And this short documentary premiered at the inaugural Define American Film Festival in Des Moines, Iowa. Actually, Undocumented Iowa opened the film festival, which showed six feature films and six short documentaries in three days. Is there an issue as central to this primary season (especially among Republicans) and as politicized and partisan as immigration? Define American’s chief goal is to humanize and personalize immigration, especially to potential caucus-goers in Iowa, where the flood of immigration-oriented television and radio ads is non-stop. Define American hosted this inaugural film festival in Des Moines because we must humanize the immigration issue to Iowans.

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Credit: Define American / Facebook

Why did you choose undocumented Iowans for your documentary?

Vargas: Far too often, undocumented immigrants are the objects of the debate, rarely the ones with the agency to tell their own stories and frame their own narratives. There are an estimated 40,000 undocumented immigrants who call Iowa their home. #EmergingUS wanted to hear from them directly.

READ: These Undocumented People Can Teach Us All How to Handle and Shut Down Haters with Humor

What do you hope people take away after watching Undocumented Iowa?

Vargas: All content from #EmergingUS strives for connection and empathy. When Kenia Calderon–one of the undocumented Iowans featured in the documentary–says that “growing up, all I wanted was to have a college degree, to give it to my parents as a gift for everything that they did, for every toilet that they have washed,” I imagine that any parent would connect with that emotion.

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Report Shows That Immigration Narratives On TV Are Latinx-Focused And Over-Emphasize Crime

Entertainment

Report Shows That Immigration Narratives On TV Are Latinx-Focused And Over-Emphasize Crime

The media advocacy group Define American recently released a study that focused on the way immigrant characters are depicted on television. The second-annual study is entitled “Change the Narrative, Change the World”.

Although the study reports progress in some areas of onscreen representation, there is still a long way to go.

For example, the study reported that half of the immigrant characters depicted on television are Latino, which is consistent with reality. What is not consistent with reality, however, is how crime-related storylines are still an overrepresented theme in these storylines.

The study shows that on television 22% of immigrant characters have crime storylines show up as part of their narratives. These types of storylines further pedal the false narrative that immigrants are criminals, when in reality, they’re just everyday people who are trying to lives their best lives. Ironically, this statistic is an improvement on the previous year’s statistics in which crime themes made up 34% of immigrants’ stories on TV.

These numbers are further proof that the media feels stories of Latino immigration have to be about sadness and hardship in order to be worth watching.

According to Define American’s website, their organization believes that “powerful storytelling is the catalyst that can reshape our country’s immigration narrative and generate significant cultural change.”

They believe that changing the narratives depicted in entertainment media can “reshape our country’s immigration narrative and generate significant cultural change.” 

“We wanted to determine if seeing the specific immigration storylines influenced [viewers’] attitudes, behavior, or knowledge in the real world,” said Sarah Lowe, the associate director of research and impact at Define American to Variety. “And we were reassured and inspired to see the impact it had.” 

Define American’s founder, Jose Antonio Vargas, is relatively optimistic about the study’s outcomes, saying that the report has “some promising findings” and the numbers “provide [him] with hope”. He added that there are still “many areas in which immigrant representation can improve”.

via Getty Images

Namely, Vargas was disappointed in television’s failure to take an intersectional approach to immigration in regards to undocumented Black immigrants. 

“Black undocumented immigrants are detained and deported at higher rates than other ethnic groups,” Vargas told Variety. “But their stories are largely left off-screen and left out of the larger narrative around immigration.” 

“Change the Narrative, Change the World” also showed that Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants are also under-represented on television compared with reality. Also worth noting, male immigrants were over-represented on television compared to reality, while immigrants with disabilities were also under-represented.

The study also showed that when viewers are exposed to TV storylines that humanize immigrants, they’re more likely to take action on immigration issues themselves. 

The effect that fictional entertainment narratives have on viewers further proves that representation does, indeed, matter. What we watch as entertainment changes the way we think about other people’s lived experiences. And that, in turn, can change the world.

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With Immigration Fees Set To Increase, Advocacy Groups Are Hosting “Citizenship Weeks” To Help People Get Their Documents In On Time

Things That Matter

With Immigration Fees Set To Increase, Advocacy Groups Are Hosting “Citizenship Weeks” To Help People Get Their Documents In On Time

Damen Wood / Getty Images

Becoming a U.S. resident or citizen has never been an easy process. The country’s immigration system is a convoluted mess that sharply leans in favor of high-wealth individuals and under the Trump administration that is becoming more apparent than ever.

But 2020 has been an especially challenging year for immigrants seeking to complete their citizenship process.

Although it’s common for interest in naturalization to spike in the months leading up to presidential elections, the Coronavirus pandemic forced the citizenship process to a grinding halt in March. The outbreak shut offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) all across the country. And although many of these offices reopened in July, there is a widening backlog of applications.

Meanwhile, on October 2, looming fee increases could leave applications and citizenship out of reach for tens of thousands of immigrants, as the process becomes significantly more costly.

Many migrant advocacy groups are hosting events meant to help immigrants complete their applications before prices are set to rise.

In South Florida, the Office of New Americans (ONA) — a public-private partnership between Miami-Dade County and non-profit legal service providers — launched its second Miami Citizenship Week on Sept. 11. This 10-day event is designed to help immigrants with free legal support so participants can beat the October 2 deadline.

In addition, the event will host a mix of celebrations meant to highlight the social and economic contributions of South Florida’s large immigrant communities.

“I think in Miami we talk about how we are diverse and how we are adjacent to Latin America, but we never take a moment to celebrate immigrants and the amazing work that they do whether it’s the nurses in our hospitals, the drivers that drive our buses, small business owners,” said Krystina François, ONA’s executive director. “We need to reclaim the narrative around immigrants and around our communities because it’s what makes us great.”

However, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions, the events will all be hosted online.

Much like any other event, Covid-19 has greatly impacted this year’s “Citizenship Week.” Therefore, the event will be hosted virtually. That includes the Mega Citizenship Clinic, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 16-20. At the event, pro-bono lawyers from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Americans for Immigrant Justice and other groups will connect with attendees one-on-one on Zoom and walk them through the process of filling out the 20-page citizenship application form. 

The clinic is open to immigrants eligible to become naturalized citizens, meaning permanent residents who have had a green card for at least five years.

Cities like Dallas are also getting in on similar events, meant to welcome new residents and citizens into the city.

Dallas’ Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs is hosting a series of virtual events from Sept. 12 to Sept. 20 in honor of Welcoming Week. The virtual events aim to promote Dallas’ diverse communities and to unite all residents, including immigrants and refugees.

According to the City of Dallas, this year’s theme is Creating Home Together, and it emphasizes the importance of coming together as a community to build a more inclusive city for everyone.

Participants will be able to learn about the voting process and what will be on the next ballot during the “Vontando Por Mi Familia: Enterate para que vas a votar” event. The event, hosted in partnership with Mi Familia, will be presented in Spanish.

A Council Member, Jaime Resendez, will host a virtual program on Tuesday at 11 a.m. that celebrates Latinx art and culture. The event will celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Mayor Eric Johnson will read the Welcoming Week Proclamation, and the event will feature art exhibitions and performances showcasing the talents of performers and artists across Dallas.

Attendees will also have a chance to learn more about the availability of DACA and a citizenship workshop will take place where articipants will learn how to complete their N-400 application for citizenship. Volunteer immigration attorneys and accredited representatives from the Department of Justice will be there for assistance.

The events come as fees for several immigration proceedings are set to rise by dramatic amounts come October 1.

Starting on October 2, the financial barrier will grow even taller for many immigrants as fees are set to increase. The fee to apply for U.S. citizenship will increase from $640 to $1,160 if filed online, or $ 1,170 in paper filing, a more than 80% increase in cost. 

“In the middle of an economic downturn, an increase of $520 is a really big amount,” François told the Miami-Herald.

Aside from the fee increase, many non-citizen immigrants never truly felt the need to become citizens. That was until the Coronavirus pandemic hit and had many questioning their status in the country.

“There are people who up until this COVID crisis, their status as a permanent resident didn’t impact their day-to-day life … but then the pandemic has given them another reason of why it’s important to take that extra step and become a citizen, because of the additional rights and protections that are afforded to you, but also to just have a sense of security and stability in a crisis.”

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