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Jose Antonio Vargas Headshot

How Do You Define American? Share Your Story

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Mine was merely one story, in which I chronicled my life as an undocumented immigrant for the New York Times Magazine. I'm just one person. From the very beginning, as I told The Guardian, "if I'm going to come out with this, I'm going to do it in a big way. And not just for myself. This can't just be my story."

Earlier this week Define American, a campaign I founded with a small but diverse group of friends, launched an ambitious effort that lives up to that promise: a Stories feature that enables any immigrant, immigrant ally or citizen to digitally share their story via videos, audio, photo or text.

We have a goal of collecting 500 stories -- yep, 500 -- in the next week, with multimedia testimonials that elevate how we talk about immigration. Among the first participants include entrepreneur and Occupy Wall Street supporter Russell Simmons and Internet pioneer Craig Newmark of Craiglist, in addition to Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of the influential BlogHer network, and Hollywood director Chris Weitz, who followed up his blockbuster hit "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" with the must-see "A Better Life," which tells the story of an undocumented gardener and his American-born teenage son. Stephen Colbert, always good for a sharp laugh, recorded a video, too. Via Skype, I asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton how she defines American. In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to get videos from high-profile celebrities, politicians and technocrats. But some of the most touching videos have come (and will continue to come) from ordinary people -- documented and undocumented, of all ages and backgrounds, Democrats and Republicans -- whose lives are touched by illegal immigration yet whose voices are often inadequately represented in the media.

Take the story of Julie Erfle, a former journalist. Her husband Nick, a Phoenix police officer, was shot and killed by a previously deported undocumented immigrant in 2007. His death helped sparked the anti-immigrant wave in Arizona that culminated in the passage of SB1070 last year. People expected Julie, a white middle class woman, to ride the wave. Instead, she has called for the need for consensus and finding common ground -- for humanity.

Take the story of Victor, who I met a few weeks ago while on a reporting trip to Alabama, which surpassed even Arizona in passing the country's most draconian immigration law. Thirteen years ago, Victor crossed the border with his parents and settled in the South. He's 19 now, smart as a whip, the kind of student who earned the highest score during a citizenship test in his U.S. History class. "Even though I'm undocumented -- 'illegal' as many people say -- I love this country. I've studied the history of this country," he told me. He wants to be a history teacher, but he's not in college right now. Like most states, Alabama does not grant in-state tuition to undocumented students. Yet despite the challenges, he keeps a positive outlook. "I define American as the betterment of the self," Victor said in his video. "America to me is a country, as well as an idea, as a belief. A belief and a notion that you can move upwards."

Theirs are voices that we don't offer hear in such a polarized, controversial issue. Yet theirs are precisely the voices we need to hear to come up with common-sense, practical solution to our shared immigration problem. And it is, in fact, a shared problem. Illegal immigration is not just about undocumented immigrants like me who contribute to society and pay taxes. It's also about countless American citizens -- from principals to pastors, coaches to classmates, all members of the 21st Century Underground Railroad -- who are forced to deal with a broken immigration system that our government has consistently failed to fix. Using new technologies, undocumented immigrants like me and the citizens who aid us are increasingly telling the truth about our broken system. And by telling the truth -- by telling and sharing our stories -- we are standing up for justice, and for each other.

So tell your relatives, friends and co-workers to share their stories on Define American. And, while you're at it, please tell us your story, too, by answering these questions and sharing here: http://www.defineamerican.com/stories

How do you define American?

Why is America special to you?

What's your immigration story?

We've received more than 100 stories since our launch Tuesday. We need more.

This golden age of story-telling, in this era of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, is also the golden age of story-sharing. Our future, in many ways, depend on it. As James Baldwin, one of my journalistic oracles, once said: "Our history is each other. That is our only guide."