“Dreaming On”: Human Rights Activists Speak on Illegal Immigration, Mental Illness, and Racial Discrimination

After traveling throughout six states in just eight days, Jose Antonio Vargas said he felt at home taking the stage with fellow human rights speakers Awele Makeba and Sandra Hernandez for USF’s Third Annual Critical Diversity Fall Forum last Friday. Among the issues discussed with the diverse USF student and faculty audience were the topics of illegal immigration, mental illness, and racial discrimination.

Vargas, the keynote speaker of the event, has been visiting univer- sities and colleges across the nation to tell his story; the story of a man who won the Pulitzer prize for excellence in Journalism, worked for the Washington Post, launched the campaign “Define American” and wrote a Time Magazine cover story. But also the story of a boy who left his family at the shy, young age of 12, seeking opportunities that were otherwise lacking in his Filipino hometown.

When Vargas revealed his undocumented status in 2011, he suffered the backlash of his critics, while speaking as a voice of reason for the misunderstood issue of illegal immigration.

“When I hear the term ‘American exceptionalism’, I think about the American capacity to dream,” said Vargas. “To be an American is to dream,” he said. Maybe this idea is what inspired him to launch his campaign “Define American,” which seeks to change the discourse about illegal immigration, and fight for the passage of the DREAM Act, which gives undocumented immigrants under the age of 16 the opportunity to begin their path to citizenship.

The past two and a half years since he revealed himself, Vargas said, “have felt both like a nightmare and a dream.”

Also living within the nightmare of discrimination are the marginal- ized communities of people living with mental impairments, and those continuing to face racial discrimination. Political and social activists Makeba and Hernandez joined Vargas in empowering the USF community to motivate change across the board.

The room fell silent as Makeba played the part of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, just months before Rosa Parks suf- fered similar consequences. Makeba, a producer, educator, storyteller and 2012 TED (conferences focused on Technology, Entertainment, and Design) speaker, spoke with tears in her eyes as she walked the stage, urging her audience to consider the themes still existing decades after the Civil Rights Movement. Pain and suffering, youth empowerment, and resilience, members of the audience responded.

Professor Marilyn DeLaure, who was on the planning committee for the event, along with co-chairs Evelyn Hoe and Evelyn Rodriguez, said “Awele made history come alive by becoming Claudette Colvin.” What made Makeba’s performance so powerful was, “[She] drew connections between Colvin’s story and contemporary struggles for equality and justice, from education to the criminal justice system.”

DeLaure, who required her stu- dents to attend the event, added that Makeba prompted students to reflect on their abilities to strive towards social justice. There was a consensus among DeLaure’s students that they left feeling much more aware of the issues that were discussed, but also inspired to get involved. “The speeches given on Friday truly ignited my flame of passion for social justice and equality for all,” one of her students said. Jessie Wray, senior sociology major said, “It was such an inspirational opportunity because it allowed stu- dents to hear from activists who are currently trying to incite posi- tive change in our society.” Wray explained that although it is “difficult to bring the world of academia out into a world where people are already working to make change, this gave insight into how to do it,” she said.

Later in the evening, Vargas explained why he decided to reveal himself as an undocumented immigrant and spark such a change. He was done hiding who he really was. “Sometimes you have to risk your life to free yourself,” he said. What kept him going, he said, was God. Not the god of a church, “but the god that exists in all of us,” he said, putting special emphasis on the people that treated him with the same respect as any other American throughout his life and career.

After Time Magazine accepted his pitch to write a story about his status as undocumented, Vargas called members of the U.S. government, telling them he was a reporter and an undocumented immigrant requesting comment on why he hadn’t been deported and what they had planned to do with him. The woman on the phone said, “no comment.” This was representative, Vargas thinks, of the response many Americans have to shut down when the issue is brought up. Vargas expressed how misunderstood the issue of illegal immigration is, as did Sandra Hernandez, the Chief Executive Officer of The San Francisco Foundation, on the topic of mental illness. Hernandez said that one day, she got a phone call from a family member asking what they were going to do about their cousin who had been diagnosed with depression. Not long before that, her middle-school- aged daughter’s best friend was diagnosed with depression too.

We don’t have enough discussion on the topic, Hernandez thinks. She said her daughter asked why her friend wasn’t getting better after taking medication, and won- dered when somebody is filled with darkness inside, isn’t there something we can do about that? There may not be a concrete answer, but she hopes a national conversation on the subject will arise.

Hernandez explained how mental illnesses can be misrepresented, especially in terms of of gun violence. She said that many times, society is so focused on the issue as more guns or less guns, that we forget to consider the person standing behind the tragedy. Hernandez wondered, if someone had taken action after the gunman at the Navy Yard Shooting had approached an officer saying he was hearing voices in his head two weeks before the shooting, could those twelve lives had been spared?

In the media coverage on gun violence, said Hernandez, “what makes them sensational is that [the perpetrators] do senseless, painful things and it turns into a conver- sation about guns.” She reminded the audience, “Underneath each of those stories is a family, not unlike mine, with resources and capabilities.”

A theme that was consistent throughout all the speeches was that these issues need to be human- ized. Vargas mentioned how many people use the term “illegal” in reference to an undocumented immigrant, but what they’re forgetting is, “actions can be illegal, people can’t be. No human being is illegal.” Even though Vargas thinks the is- sue has become so politicized, “I believe the majority of the American people want to help people like me out, they just don’t know it yet.” He thinks there is a silent major- ity that just hasn’t spoken up yet because they don’t have the right information. The speakers of USF’s Third Annual Critical Diversity Fall Forum sought to create a louder, more-educated majority.

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