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  • ORLANDO—Jose Antonio Vargas – journalist, filmmaker, undocumented citizen – called on educators to “open every window” to aid immigrant youth in their schools. 

    “Do pieces of paper, legal documents, a passport, a green card – do they define what and who an American is?” This is the question Vargas asked educators to ponder in his speech at the Council of the Great City Schools’ 66th Annual Fall Conference.  

    “As a journalist and filmmaker who happens to be undocumented, I’ve spent the past decade trying to get people to understand the facts, context and history that informs this really complicated immigration system,” Vargas said.  

    According to Vargas, there are 11 million undocumented people in the United States, and yet no straightforward path to citizenship. “There’s no line for me to get in back of, there’s no sort of process for people like me to follow,” the activist said. 

    Vargas arrived in California in 1983 as a 12-year-old to live with his grandparents, both naturalized U.S. citizens. His mother stayed behind in the Philippines, “waiting in line to come here legally,” Vargas said, adding, “She’s still waiting.” He cannot leave the country for fear he would not be allowed back in.

    In his youth, Vargas told the audience, he did what the undocumented typically do – “you lie, you pass, you hide.” He lied on employment forms and dodged questions or lied about his family situation.

    Then, Vargas took a bold step, revealing in a 2011 New York Times Magazine essay his status as an undocumented immigrant. That same year, he founded Define American, a nonprofit organization focused on immigration issues.  

    In 2018, he published a memoir, Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. The next year, the school board in his hometown, Mountain View, Calif., named a school for him. 

    “You are probably looking at the most privileged, undocumented immigrant in America,” he told conferees. But his is just one story of a young immigrant’s life, he said. “We need more stories to change the anti-immigrant narrative that’s taking deep hold in our country.”

    He told the educators they can play a vital role in the national conversation on immigration by ensuring schools are welcoming, supportive places for students and their families. “Are your schools immigrant friendly?” he asked. “Are your school materials translated into languages spoken by immigrant families who actually attend your schools?”  

    There are about 100,000 high school graduates each year who are undocumented, he told conference attendees, adding that 3.9 million K-12 students – “many of them in your schools” -- are the children of undocumented immigrants.  

    Yet, more than 20 years after it was first proposed, the DREAM Act to protect minors from deportation still has not been enacted. And DACA, the executive order offering protections to undocumented youth, is imperiled.

    “Immigration reform is not going anywhere,” said Vargas in a blunt assessment. “I have to be honest and tell you that ground zero is where you are. Anything we can do to work together to provide resources and [get] access to undocumented students and their families in the next few years and decades, please let’s do it together.”