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Jose Antonio Vargas

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What Does It Mean To Be An American?

Posted: 07/04/2012 10:13 am

Today's Fourth of July holiday, our country's birthday, marks a new beginning for undocumented Americans like me.

Last month, TIME magazine featured an unprecedented photograph of 36 undocumented young people, myself included, on the cover of its U.S. and international editions. "We are Americans," the headline declared. "Just not legally." Shortly after, President Obama, in the most significant step in the fight for immigrant rights since President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, issued a directive to stop the deportation of an estimated 1 million DREAM Act-eligible undocumented youth and welcome them to our workforce. America, in turn, embraced 1 million dreams. And in last week's Supreme Court decision on Arizona's immigration law, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion for the highest court in the land: "As a general rule, it is not a crime for a movable alien to remain in the United States."

As we celebrate America's Independence Day -- as we explore what it means to be American on the most American of all days -- I also celebrate my independence from the word "illegal."

Academics and lawyers will be quick to point out that I, in fact, was never a "criminal." Being in the U.S. without authorization is not a crime, but rather a civil offense for the country's estimated 12 million undocumented residents. Yet for too long, the rhetoric around immigration has been shrouded in and synonymous with criminality. As a cable news producer on Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" tells a colleague in the show's most recent episode, we've grown accustomed to talking about human beings as if "we're talking about scraping gum off our shoes."

"These people chose to take a huge risk to become Americans," the producer notes, "and they deserve a better descriptor than 'illegals.'"

To me, what it means to be an American goes beyond your place of birth or the documents you have, back to when throngs of Irish, Italian and Eastern Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a better life, no papers asked. What it means to be an American is less about who you are than what you are about-- how you live your life, how you contribute to this country, how you pledge allegiance to a flag hoping and praying it will make room for you. What it means to be an American is in the hearts of the people who, in their struggles and heartaches, in their joys and triumphs, fight for America and fight to be American every day.

A few weeks after I "came out" in June 2011 about my undocumented status in an essay in the New York Times Magazine, Washington state revoked my driver's license. Among the first people to reach out to me was Aaron Sorkin. I've interviewed Sorkin before. He told me he was working on a new show about a cable news program, and that the second episode is set on the day Gov. Jan Brewer signed the Arizona immigration bill into law. He asked for my thoughts on immigration. In an email later, I told him about the first time I watched one of his films. It was 1997, not too long after I discovered that I didn't have the proper documents to live in America. I was watching "The American President," a movie starring Michael Douglas, and toward the end of the film, Douglas, as the president, says: "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight." I was 16, lost and disoriented, and I told Sorkin that hearing those words helped me realize that I had to fight -- that America was a fight and that America had to be earned.

Undocumented Americans, aspiring citizens like me, have been fighting and will continue to fight for this country we call home. And, as more and more undocumented Americans and the people who support us -- the Good Samaritans in our lives, the teachers, pastors, neighbors and friends who make up our underground railroad -- "come out" and tell our stories, America's view of immigration and the nature of citizenship itself grows increasingly more complex and nuanced. It becomes about human beings.

Together with a small group of friends, I founded a campaign called Define American, which seeks to elevate conversation on immigration. And elevating and broadening the conversation means engaging different types of audiences from all walks of life. After appearing on "The O'Reilly Factor" last month, I received an email from Dennis Murphy of Omaha, Nebraska. The email reads:

"Mr. Vargas:

As founder and former state chairman of the Nebraska Minutemen, now merged with the Nebraska Tea Party, I was positively impressed by your interview with Bill O'Reilly. If I understand your situation correctly, you [were] brought into the United States by your parents when you were a young child, and they chose for whatever reason to do so in a fashion that avoided our immigration law. You now refer to yourself in your blog as "an undocumented American," which I believe is a fair and accurate assessment."


Thank you, Mr. Murphy, for considering me one of your fellow Americans. Let's keep the conversation going. Let's keep exploring what it means to be an American.

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  • A Country Of Transplants

    America: a country of transplants that everyone can call home <em>Koda Wang / The Huffington Post</em>

  • Meaningful Contributions

    "American" means anyone who makes a meaningful contribution to our country regardless of their skin color, sexual orientation, gender, age, occupation -- and regardless of the language they speak or where they were born. American means giving everyone the opportunity to make their dreams come true. American means an eclectic range of opinions and ideas and an ongoing conversation about what's right and especially, what's wrong... <em>Lee Hernandez, The Huffington Post</em>

  • Everything Is Possible With Hard Work And Determination

    To me, being American means being lucky enough to be surrounded by so many different kind of people from all over the world and having every opportunity in the world to be successful. As a first-generation American, my parents never forget to remind me of all of these advantages and that everything is possible with hard work and determination. <em>Cindy Rodriguez, The Huffington Post</em>

  • A Promise

    When I think of 'American', I think of potential, of endless possibility, of an idealized promise to think progressively, to act humanely and be true to democratic ideals. And then I remember how often we fail to live up to these. <em>Miguel Ferrer, The Huffington Post</em>

  • Standing Up For...

    Being an American means standing up for the ideals, words and beliefs of freedom and equality and sharing in the opportunity to live rich lives of liberty, happiness, and peace together. <em>Jonny Stewart / The Huffington Post</em>

  • The American Way

  • M. Boop

  • A Matter Of Caring For Each Other

    I may not have come here with the right papers, but I've been raised with the right values. I was born in El Salvador, but Los Angeles is my home. When I look around, I see myself in my college friends, but also in my childhood friends in El Salvador. To be an American is a matter of caring for each other, and seeing ourselves in one another. <em>Fermin Vasquez, Communications Coordinator, Californians for Justice</em>

  • A Collective Identity

    I define "American" as being a resident of any of its 35 countries. As Americans with a collective identity we acknowledge we would not exist without immigration. To be from America is to hope, to travel, to accept the good, and fight collectively for human rights. <em>Ingrid Cruz</em>

  • Optimism!

    One of the characteristics I've come to love the most about my adopted country is its optimism. In fact, it melded perfectly with my own Greek temperament: Zorba the Greek meets the American spirit. The Italian journalist Luigi Barzini wrote that America "is alarmingly optimistic, compassionate, incredibly generous... It was a spiritual wind that drove Americans ahead from the beginning." <em>Arianna Huffington, The Huffington Post</em>

  • To Speak Loudly Against Injustice

    One of my great-grandmothers was the first black woman to cast a ballot -- to actually vote -- in the state of Texas. My father reminded me that she did so despite the fact that, for black women, voting was neither safe nor guaranteed until 1965. Her own mother had been born a slave. But my great-grandmother stepped forward and took the risk of voting because she believed in the importance of participating in democracy and making her considered and apparently numerous opinions known. Most of all, my father said she told him when he was a boy, she did it because it is the responsibility of every American to speak loudly against injustice, to make sacrifices in the name of advancing equality and to hold the country to the promises laid out in the Constitution. <em>Janell Ross, The Huffington Post</em>

  • Passing Greater Opportunity To Our Children

  • Freedom To Express Myself

    Fourth of July is not an empty holiday for me. I reflect on those early revolutionaries who took the big step to form this great nation. It's important for us to think about it and preserve our independence. Being a new American citizen means freedom, opportunities and participation in a more coherent, well-established legal system. It means freedom to express myself as a lesbian, openly expressing my sexual orientation. <em>Anonymous Dominican-American, New York City</em>

  • Governed By The Principles Of The Bill Of Rights

    What I value most about being an American is living in a nation governed by the principles of the Bill of Rights. They are what make the U.S. a model of democracy throughout the world. In post-911 America, these rights are under severe attack. July 4 is a good day to remember the values our founders entrusted us to uphold. <em>Susan Elan, Mahopac, NY</em>

  • A Collection Of Ideals

    America, for me, is not a piece of land, or a collection of states unified under one flag. America is a collection of ideals. At the foundation of those ideals is equality of opportunity. The idea that everybody -- no matter where you've come from, culturally, ethnically or otherwise -- has the chance to create for themselves a free life. To be an American is to bet the house on that ideal. <em>Jermaine Spradley, The Huffington Post</em>

  • No 1,000-Year-Old Ghosts

    America is a land of people whose ancestors were too restless or stubborn or undesirable or unlucky to remain in the land of their ancestors. As a result, we can get pretty eccentric -- there are no 1,000-year-old ghosts watching over us, keeping us in line -- but we also possess an unparalleled sense of opportunity. The unique freedom we enjoy is not political freedom as much as it's freedom from preconceptions. We think anything's possible, and so, to a degree that would be unthinkable elsewhere, it is. <em>Mike Hogan, The Huffington Post</em>

  • America For The Americans

    American means conforming to what is expected: individualism, capitalism and consumerism -- and to reject what is a "threat" to America. American means to continuously attempt to erase history, while repeating historical "mistakes". America is more of an ideal reserved for a few who conform. <em>Jesus Cortez, M.A. Candidate, Social and Cultural Analysis of Education, California State University, Long Beach</em>

  • The Opportunity To Be Whoever You Want

    In the Northern Marianas, being American means you're white. That makes me half-American, while the other half is Chamorro. And for most Chamorros, American isn't a word they usually use to describe themselves, even though everyone is a citizen. People identify here with their ethnicities and don't realize all the opportunity that comes with being an American. And for me, and for my father who was not born an American citizen but died one, American means you have the opportunity to do whatever, live wherever, and be whoever you want. <em>Angelo Villagomez, The Saipan Blog</em>

  • It Belongs To All Of The Americas

    American: a term those born in the U.S. have taken for themselves even though it belongs to all of the Americas. Accepting that, however, 'American' is a mix of absolute love for your country and way of life, but with a constant search for your roots. 'Americans' are young and descendant of migrants from around the world, yet often choose to deny this to others. I feel American because I was born in South America, but I am a spectator to the 'Americans' in this country; learning and incorporating from the best, while accepting, but not bringing into my life and home, the worst. <em>Mandy Fridmann, The Huffington Post</em>

  • Freedom To Express Ideas

    An American is someone who is free to express his or her ideas and beliefs, even if they run somewhere along the lines of, "America sucks!" In Morocco in 2003, I had the following hilarious conversation: Me: "I would love to buy this lamp!" Vendor: "I have bad news for me, but not very bad news for you. I cannot sell to Americans." Me: "Really? Why not?" Vendor: "I am so sorry. I just cannot. [pause] Maybe you are Canadian?" Me: "Nope. I'm an American." Vendor: "Are you SURE you're not Canadian...?" Me: "I'm definitely American." Vendor: "Then I cannot sell to you. I'm sorry. It is for political reasons." Me: "That's okay. I come from a country where you are free to hold your own political beliefs, so I respect the fact that you don't wish to sell to Americans." [Then I bought a lamp from the guy in the stall next door.] <em>Elizabeth Kuster, The Huffington Post</em>


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