Why Jose Antonio Vargas wants undocumented immigrants to come out

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A new campaign wants to throw a massive coming out party for America’s undocumented immigrants.


Define American, the organization founded by journalist and immigrant rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas, launched a campaign Wednesday encouraging the nation’s 11.5 million undocumented immigrants to “come out” by declaring their status.

The initiative was introduced in a video featuring several immigrants announcing their undocumented status.

On a press call, Vargas called the campaign “unprecedented in scope” and emphasized the importance of telling individual stories to change perceptions of undocumented immigrants. “We ‘come out’ to let people in,” he said.


Jessica Lee, an undocumented woman featured in the video, expressed feeling more fulfilled after coming out. “You can’t be your full self when you’re hiding,” she said on the call.

But is it really practical for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrants to shout their status from the hilltops? Vargas, who owns a Pulitzer Prize and has written for the The New York Times, enjoys visibility in the media and is not exactly immigration authorities’ most immediate target. (He was detained last summer in a Texas airport and let go the same day.)

“The positives [of coming out] are that there is a community you’re visible to. If something happens to you, people know,” said Luis Serrano, an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Coalition of Los Angeles, about the campaign. “The negatives are people can lose their jobs.”

“We shouldn’t impose [coming out] on people. Some people have a higher risk than others,” said Serrano.


Ryan Eller, the executive director of Define American, acknowledged that coming out isn’t for everyone. “Coming out is a personal decision and there are certainly risks that come along with it,” he said.

Vargas also acknowledged those risks. “Coming out doesn’t mean getting on the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania and putting a sign up saying ‘I’m undocumented,’” said he said. “It means telling a friend.”


Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.

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