Jose Antonio Vargas responds to organizers of "catch an illegal immigrant" event

"I grew up thinking I was 'illegal' because that’s how people and the media talked and still talk about us"

Published November 22, 2013 11:10PM (EST)

Jose Antonio Vargas wrote a really thoughtful response to the now-canceled "Catch an illegal immigrant" event organized by the Young Conservatives of Texas, a group at the University of Texas-Austin.

In it he mainly called for a little human empathy and perspective from the organizers, reminding them that they are talking about real people, a simple but important point that was entirely absent from the framing of the event intended to “spark a campus-wide discussion about the issue of illegal immigration and how it affects our everyday lives,” according to the conservative group.

He also challenged them to a real discussion about immigration, one that doesn't involve cheap, dehumanizing spectacle.

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I grew up thinking I was “illegal” because that’s how people and the media talked and still talk about us, as if we are criminals. I grew up thinking I would be caught — by the employers I lied to so I could work, and by the police officers who might stop and arrest me for driving. I grew up thinking the American flag I had been pledging allegiance to since middle school didn’t belong to me.


The event’s organizers should also know that undocumented students are their classmates, many of them members of a group called the University Leadership Initiative. At least 400 undocumented Longhorns, I’ve been told, attend the University of Texas-Austin. Many students at UT, like 20-year-old Josh Alvarez, who works with Campus Events and Entertainment, the largest event-planning organization on campus, have parents who are undocumented.

I met Josh and many of those other students last month, when I visited the University of Texas-Austin campus as part of Undocumented Longhorns Week — the first weeklong event of its kind in the state. I spoke to a crowd of about 400 people at a Define American event and showed select clips from Documented, a documentary film I recently completed on immigration.

So on Tuesday night, after visiting the JFK Library, I called Josh and proposed the following: If the Young Conservatives of Texas truly want to “spark a campus-wide discussion” on immigration, maybe they’ll co-host a screening of Documented with the University Leadership Initiative in the next few weeks. Campus Events and Entertainment will help organize the screening, and I will pay my own way to UT to hold a real conversation.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Bigotry Immigration Immigration Reform Jose Antonio Vargas Racism Texas