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Undocumented activist to speak on campus

Jose Antonio Vargas is a prize-winning journalist and filmmaker, activist, Broadway producer, and nonprofit founder. In short, Vargas is a modern day Renaissance man who also happens to be an undocumented immigrant in the United States.

Vargas will be visiting Rollins this semester as a visiting scholar from the Winter Park Institute to speak on his experiences in a nation divided over who should gain citizenship and who should not.

“[Vargas] advocates for the rights of equality and citizenship and challenges audiences to think about how we define what it means to be an American,” said Gail Sinclair, executive director of the Winter Park Institute. “His energy and passion will no doubt inspire our students.”

In 2011, Vargas published a ground-breaking piece in the New York Times Magazine, in which he shared his story as an undocumented immigrant embracing an American lifestyle in every way except citizenship. 

At the age of 12, Vargas’ mother sent him on a plane from the Philippines to America with a man who she claimed was his uncle. There, he was placed in the care of his grandparents—naturalized citizens from the Philippines—and did not find out his immigration status until he tried to apply for a driver’s license with a fake green card when he was 16-years-old.

Despite facing countless obstacles and uncertainty throughout his entire life, Vargas has forged his own path of success. He graduated from San Francisco State University in 2004 and was immediately hired by the Washington Post. 

Some of his accolades include his honorary degrees from Emerson College, Colby College, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Vargas’ best-selling memoir, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” was published in 2018, and his activism in immigration law has inspired people across the globe.

Vargas also founded the nonprofit organization known as Define American. This media and culture group works with popular media platforms to redefine and influence the conversation on immigration. 

Define American has worked on movies and television shows, such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” and it works with streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Hulu. 

Vargas received Emmy nominations for his MTV special “White People,” a documentary on what life is like for young white Americans in a country where the racial demographics are shifting rapidly. He also co-produced Heidi Schreck’s Tony-nominated Broadway play, “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

As the 2020 elections near and immigration becomes a more divisive topic, Vargas’ lifelong work becomes increasingly relevant. Over 2.3 million immigrants have been reported as deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since Vargas arrived in the United States in 2012.

Vargas believes that coming out as undocumented is necessary for rich discussion about immigration reform. 

Since he nationally came out as an undocumented immigrant in his New York Times Magazine article, over 2,000 people have done the same over social media, emails, or in person. 

Vargas himself has reached out to the ICE headquarters in Washington to inquire about the status of his case and the cases of those who also publicly announced their undocumented statuses. 

In an article he wrote for TIME Magazine, Vargas said that when he inquired about the consequences of publicly disclosing one’s undocumented status, he received an unsatisfying response. 

“‘We do not comment on specific cases,’ is all I was told,” said Vargas.

Vargas’ visit at Rollins will expose students to a side of the immigration debate that is rarely available to the public. He will create the opportunity for students to gain insight into the complex life of one undocumented immigrant.

“Regardless of political persuasion, I think we all understand that citizenship is a privilege we hold dear in America, and Jose Antonio Vargas will share this value from his perspective,” said Sinclair. “Being able to hear multiple, well-articulated perspectives is the basis of our democracy, and incidentally, of our academic charge as well.”

On Oct. 17, Vargas will lead a student-centered Q & A at 4 p.m. in the SunTrust Auditorium. An evening lecture will follow in the Warden Arena. Tickets are free to students and faculty, and all first-year students will be required to attend the event with their Rollins College Conference peers.

Find out more about Jose Antonio Vargas and his work at and see a full list of the Winter Park Institute’s visiting speakers at

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