Jose Antonio Vargas to Speak in Iowa City About Immigration

By Diane Heldt, Reporter

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, immigration rights activist and self-declared undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on comprehensive immigration reform. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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By Liz Blood

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas recalls covering Mike Huckabee on the campaign trail for the 2008 Iowa Caucuses when Huckabee brought up illegal immigrants.

Vargas, himself an undocumented immigrant -- something not publicly known at the time, said he was tempted to raise his hand to say "by the way Governor, I'm one of the people you're talking about and I'm covering this campaign."

A native of the Philippines who has lived in the United States since 1993, Vargas has since gone public with his undocumented status. He wrote about it in 2011, 18 years after he was sent to live in the United States by his mother. That confession and his subsequent travels around the country to talk about immigration are his way of helping humanize an issue he says is too often played for politics.

"I think we're talking about an issue here that has been devoid of humanity for the most part. I feel like when people talk about this issue, we get stuck in this U.S./Mexico border thing," Vargas said. "We haven't really connected the dots" of how immigration affects families already here and the U.S. economy.

Vargas will discuss his views on immigration in Iowa City Monday, when he delivers his "Define American" talk, sponsored by the University of Iowa lecture committee. The 7:30 p.m. lecture at The Englert Theater is free admission.

Iowa is important to this discussion, Vargas said, because of the political sway the state holds via the first-in-the-nation caucuses. During the 2012 election campaign, Vargas made news after he was ejected from a Mitt Romney rally in Cedar Rapids, where he was carrying a sign that read "I am an American without papers."

"The importance of Iowa is the fact that this is the state where politicians go and kind of play political football with immigration," he said.

Vargas, 32, said he welcomes at his speaking events attendees who have differing views.

"I want to talk to people who call me illegal. I want to talk with people who want to deport me, people who think this issue has nothing to do with them," he said. "We have to preach beyond the choir, especially now, when we are at a historic moment in immigration reform in this country."

Vargas runs Define American, a non-profit organization that seeks to elevate the conversation about immigration. He promotes reform that would allow undocumented immigrants living in the United States to come forward and become legal residents with a clear path to citizenship. There are about 11.5 million undocumented immigrants like Vargas in the United States.

"We have to stop putting immigration, framing it as a problem and instead look at it as an opportunity for our economy and for our future," he said.

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