Award-winning journalist and filmmaker — and undocumented immigrant — comes to Boise

Jose Antonio Vargas, an award-winning journalist, filmmaker, activist and author, is the keynote speaker for the Idaho Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit next week.

And the topics he’ll cover in Boise are sure to draw attention given the political climate in the state and country.

Vargas, who is an undocumented immigrant, will be speaking to 775 Latino junior high and high school students gathering at Boise State for the annual conference. He told the Statesman in a phone interview Friday that he hopes to make sure the students know that they belong in America, regardless of their backgrounds or their immigration status.

“We have to know that our lives are worth more than pieces of paper and that our lives are more than laws that haven’t even passed,” Vargas told the Statesman. “We can’t surrender to this basic narrative that elected a president: that we are a bunch of illegals, that we don’t belong here, that there is something criminal about us.”

Vargas, who came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 12, was part of The Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for coverage of the Virginia Tech mass shooting. He famously announced his status as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Magazine article.

That same year, Vargas founded the nonprofit Define American, which seeks to change the conversation about immigration through media consulting and advocacy. Since then, Define America has consulted on several television shows and movies, including “Superstore,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Roswell.” The organization also pushes the media to abandon terminology such as “illegal immigrant” and “chain migration,” and to drop the use of anti-immigrant groups as expert sources on policy stories.

“We are a country of courageous people,” Vargas said. “To leave what you know and come to a country that expects you to assimilate, whatever that means, that’s a courageous thing to do. The way that we talk about it right now — especially the way the president talks about it — is cowardly.”

As Vargas is Filipino, not Latino, he said he hopes students will see that the issue of immigration is not inextricably linked to Central America and South America. Vargas said media coverage of immigration has “racialized” the issue as one that isolates the Latino community as outsiders, and only immigrants.

“The history of our country is the history of outsiders,” Vargas said. “In many ways, that makes them the most American. How do young Latino people live their lives in this country without thinking of themselves as minorities, but actually as majorities?”

His book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” tackles the psychology behind living as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., drawn from his own battles with depression and anxiety over his status.

“We have a mental health crisis among immigrant communities and families across this country,” Vargas said. “That’s what happens when our lives are spoken about and dissected as if all we are is labor. As if all we represent is some sort of criminal activity. As if our lives depend on political parties.”

Vargas said he hopes his story will inspire students who might feel isolated or in impossible situations.

“I want young people in this country to walk around knowing that they belong here — that more than anyone else, they have to accept themselves,” Vargas said. “They have to accept themselves to such a point that when doors are shut in front of them, they are going to find a window to open. I have made an entire career out of doors being shut in front of me and finding windows to open and finding people to help me open windows.”

The Idaho Dairymen’s Association covered Vargas’ speaking fees for the youth summit, according to the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

The annual Hispanic youth summit is open only to registered attendees, but Vargas also will be speaking Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Linen Building in Boise. Admission to that event is free, and ASL and Spanish interpretation will be available.

The Linen Building event is sponsored by the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, the College of Western Idaho, the Idaho Dairymen’s Association and Rediscovered Books. Vargas’ book will be available for sale and and a portion of the proceeds will go to support PODER of Idaho, a collective of undocumented organizers in Southwest Idaho, and Immigrant Justice Idaho.

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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.