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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.

How did you find and choose the families featured in the documentary?

Vargas: The documentary was filmed at the Orpheum Theater in Marshalltown, a tight-knit community that has reinvigorated by new immigrants, many of them undocumented. Joa LaVille, who works at the community library, is part of the Immigrant Allies of Iowa. Joa connected us to all of the participants, many of whom are members of DREAM Iowa, a very active and effective immigrant rights group in the state.

During the documentary, you were clearly upset during one of the stories. What were you thinking about?

Vargas: How can you not be upset by these stories?

So much love and respect and LOVE in this photo @askangy @yosirey @mshwer @defineamerican film festival #daff

A photo posted by Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) on

What would you say is Define American and #EmergingUS’s overall goal for immigrants and immigrant rights?

Vargas: Define American is a non-profit media group that uses the power of stories to elevate the conversation on immigration and citizenship. The focus of Define American is squarely on immigration. The scope of #EmergingUS, on the other hand, is broader. It’s a new digital platform that lives at the intersection of race, immigration, and identity in a multicultural America.

READ: 9 Ways Immigration has Hurt Young People

What do you want #EmergingUS to accomplish that is different from Define American? Why the two organizations?

Vargas: What connects #EmergingUS to Define American is the shared goal of telling a fuller story of our changing country. Define American’s work is grounded by a question (a question that everyone, especially the current presidential candidates must answer): How do you define American? The work of #EmergingUS centers on exploring the emerging American identity: Who are we and who are we becoming?

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