Jose Antonio Vargas talks citizenship for undocumented immigrants in a Trump world

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A protester claiming to be an undocumented immigrant interrupted Saturday’s keynote address by Jose Antonio Vargas at Facing Race, a three-day conference in Atlanta presented by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation.

Jose Antonio Vargas, also an undocumented immigrant and founder of nonprofit media and culture organization Define American, was describing the “extreme panic” in undocumented communities since Donald Trump won the presidential election.

Then 15 minutes into his speech, Jonathan Perez, an undocumented black Colombian Indigenous attendee, shouted that U.S. citizenship and American identification shouldn’t be a desirable goal for undocumented people.


“What if we don’t want to be American?” Perez, who prefers to be identified by the pronoun “they,” said. “I don’t want to be American!”

Vargas, visibly surprised, pushed back. He said his concept of “America” and “American” was an expansive, inclusive one. In light of the United States’ history of colonization and imperialism, immigrants earned the right to identify as American, Vargas explained: “I’m American because the U.S. went to the Philippines. I am, here, because America was there.”

Trump’s win on Tuesday sent shock waves through undocumented communities across America. Given how a small but vocal minority of the conference’s 2,000 attendees reacted to Perez’s interruption—applause, nods of agreement—citizenship issues spark diverse and dissenting opinions among undocumented immigrants.

Vargas continued with his planned remarks after the brief protest. He urged lawmakers and the media to stop prioritizing white people over people of color. Indeed, by mid-century, the U.S. will become a minority-majority nation.


“We can no longer settle for easy and comfortable questions,” Vargas said. “The stories about immigration have been too simplistic. We are so busy politicizing the issue, we have failed to ask essential questions about why people move.”

“How does U.S. policy affect migration patterns? What role does the U.S. play in this chain of migration?”


After Vargas finished his speech, Race Forward founding executive member Gary Delgado joined him on stage for a brief conversation and Q&A. Immediately after they left, a group of six protesters, including Perez, gathered around the podium and addressed the audience.


“Citizenship is not the answer,” they told the crowd. “We are getting killed. We do not have time to wait for citizenship.”

Perez, a member of the Los Angeles-based Immigrant Youth Coalition, told me that citizenship—like desegregation—is a delusion. “Brown v. Board made segregation in schools illegal, and look where we are right now. We are highly segregated,” they told me.


Instead of fighting for legal citizenship status in America, Perez and his organization advocate for the unconditional halt of deportations.

“We don’t need your fucking papers; we need to dismantle the system,” they said, adding that citizenship should include basic human needs, such as housing or healthcare. “Black lives, in that sense, don’t even have true citizenship—even with papers.”


Yessica Gonzalez, Perez’s fellow protester, agreed. Gonzalez, who prefers to be identified by the pronoun “they,” wants the concept of immigrant rights to be based on justice and humanity, rather than citizenship.

“Citizenship only benefits white-skinned folks,” they said. “It’s time to reject blanket solutions for undocumented immigrants.”


Anjali Enjeti’s work has most recently appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Guardian, The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at the Etowah Valley Writers Institute, the MFA program at Reinhardt University.

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