Things That Matter

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

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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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The Homestead Detention Center Just Transferred Out All Migrants Kids But May Welcome New Ones As Soon As October

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The Homestead Detention Center Just Transferred Out All Migrants Kids But May Welcome New Ones As Soon As October

V Kilpatrick / Pinterest

You’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe the Trump administration was reconsidering the way it was treating migrant children who are crossing the boarder. Especially since earlier this month, we’d reported that the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Miami, Florida, was to close. However, it looks like Homestead is set to reopen again – as soon as this October.

Well, that didn’t last long.

Pinterest / Jordan Malone

The beginning of the month saw the last of the children, who were detained at the facility, removed. While it’s difficult to say exactly how many children were originally housed at the detention center due to the overcrowding that’s taken place across holding facilities nationwide, it’s thought that there were between 2700 to 3000 children staying at Homestead. Part of the reason why Caliburn International, the company that runs Homestead, was instructed to reduce its detainees in the first place was due to government compliance issues. That is, the government had introduced new standards in preparation for hurricane season.

We still don’t know where the previous group of children went after leaving Homestead.

Pinterest / Chance Vintage

Even though the children were removed, it’s not clear what happened to the children once they’d left Homestead. The fact Caliburn International is a for-profit company and still required staff to show up for work, despite there being no detainees, has also clouded the issue. At the time of writing, reports say that while 1,700 employees had been dismissed due to the center officially closing, more than 2,500 kept their jobs. It’s not clear what they’re doing at Homestead while they await new inmates.

And because Homestead is an influx center, it doesn’t require a state license. 

Twitter / @marwilliamson

Typically speaking, influx centers are essentially designed to house a large number of inmates, in case the government suddenly finds itself inundated by asylum seekers. These centers are only intended for short stays, which is why they can legally hold a larger number of detainees. Otherwise, Homestead’s population would be capped at 500 children. And while we’re on the subject of numbers – temporary facilities like Homestead are actually more expensive, in the long run. They cost the government around $775 a day per child, while permanent shelters run at about $250 per day per child. Nice to know everyone’s tax dollars are being spent wisely.

Is this all starting to should kinda familiar to you? Yea, us too.

Pinterest / PolitcusUSA

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, it should. The US government recently argued in federal court that it shouldn’t have to provide things like toothbrushes and soap to detainees, since they were only being temporarily housed in the facility in Clint, Texas. Spoiler alert: the judges didn’t buy that argument, since inmates are being held for months at a time at these facilities. Again, these places that don’t provide basic necessities for inmates are more expensive to run than a more permanent facilities. 

But, we digress.

Pinterest / Chance Vintage

Oddly enough, even though Homestead is set to open again in October, Caliburn’s contract expires November 30. At this stage, it’s unclear whether the company will see the contract renewed, or whether a new contract will be opened up to competitive bidding. Apparently the original contract with Caliburn was awarded without competition, which was done so around the same time John Kelly, Trump’s ex-chief of staff, joined the company’s board of advisers. Bueno.

All of this shows that it’s still business as usual.

Pinterest / V kilpatrick

At the same time, even if the contract for Homestead was open to competitive bidding, it’s unlikely that much would change at the facility for the children who will be staying there. Companies and non-profits that promote asylum seeker’s rights and would likely provide safe and comfortable facilities have little interest in bidding for such contracts, since the very policies motivating them are diametrically opposed to the espoused values of these organizations. 

At the end of the day, this is all semantics. Because while it’s definitely important that we examine the ways that we detain migrants, and ensure that everyone receives due process, we’re not asking the most important question of all: should we even be detaining children for seeking asylum?

This New Border Wall Mural Features QR Codes That You Can Scan To Hear Emotional Stories Of Deported Migrants

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This New Border Wall Mural Features QR Codes That You Can Scan To Hear Emotional Stories Of Deported Migrants

pdtmuralproject / Instagram

Deportation is a reality that many people living in the United States face in some way or another. It is an unfortunate consequence of immigration and the policies that are currently in place.

Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana aims to shed light on those who migrate into the United States as children and are deported as Adults.

De La Cruz Santana is a Mellon Public Scholars Fellow and is a UC Davis Ph.D candidate. Her project titled, “Who Are the Real Childhood Arrivals to the United States?” is influenced by her family. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States and were later granted permanent residency.

The mural is located at Playas de Tijuana, where her father crossed in order to enter the United States, and took a total of 9 days to complete. It focuses on the stories of 6 different people who came into the United States as children, some of which were deported later in life or are currently at risk of deportation.

The people represented in the mural are Karla Estrada, Monserrat Godoy, Jairo Lozano, Isaac Rivera, Andy de León, and Tania Mendoza.

CREDIT: Credit: pdtmuralproject / Instagram

Estrada and Lozano are DACA Recipients. Lozano’s first experiences working was in the fields with his family. During the summer, he continued working because he was not eligible for financial aid or loans. He went on to receive his Bachelors in Sociology and his Masters in Marriage and Family therapy.

Godoy and Mendoza are DREAMer Moms. Both Godoy and Mendoza are strong mothers who want to see their children more than anything. After living in the U.S for some time, Godoy was threatened and ordered by her husband to go back to Mexico. She took her 2 daughters with her because she feared for her life, but they struggled in the Mexican education system. The father of the two girls successfully arranged to have them brought to him in the U.S, but he denies Godoy the right to see them. Similarly, Mendoza has not seen her daughter in years after getting deported due to her daughter’s father not wanting to give her custody rights.

Rivera is a Repatriated Childhood arrival who came into the United States at the age of 6. He was then deported after being stopped at a border checkpoint in Temecula, California.

De León is a U.S Veteran and a Repatriated Permanent Resident. He lived in the United States for more than 50 years until he was deported after his green card was revoked. He is a senior citizen who has lived in United States his whole life and struggles to live in Tijuana.

Each face that is painted is accompanied by a QR Code to engage the viewer and allow for them to interact with the mural.

CREDIT: Credit: pdtmuralproject / Instagram

It’s easy to passively watch art, but the QR codes allows these murals to come to life and tell their story without being interrupted or  without fear. Viewers can learn more about the stories behind the faces first-hand and admire the mural at the same time.

The goal of the mural is to create awareness for undocumented folks living in the United States and to obtain legal help for the individuals showcased.

The project was personal for most of the people who worked on the mural with De La Cruz Santana. For instance, Mauro Carrera and Robert Vivar.

CREDIT: Credit: pdtmuralproject / Instagram

Carrera is the muralist who brought the De La Cruz Santana’s idea to life. For him, the project has been filled with emotions because he was just a child when he came to live in the United States. He was born in Veracruz, Mexico and migrated with his family when he was 4 years old.

Vivar, who has born in 1956, immigrated with his family from Tijuana, Mexico to Riverside, CA in 1962. He grew up in the United States, his experiences shaping his childhood and adolescence. He held a variety of jobs in California, got married, and started a family. However, he eventually got deported after ICE came to his home. Vivar has lived away from his family and the country he has ever known since 2011. In a video that is part of the Humanizing Deportation project , Vivar recounts his life and says, “[I am] Proud to have been born in Mexico, but I am also a proud American because the United States is where I grew. It is my home and no deportation and no government will take that from my heart.”

The mural emphasizes the fact that the stories we hear about immigrants are not all the same. Every immigrant has a story that deserves to be told and shared.

If you would like to visit the mural, it is located in Playas De Tijuana

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