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'Coming out' undocumented: Will a Pulitzer-winning journalist's story change the debate?

Journalist/producer Jose Antonio Vargas speaks during the premiere & Tribeca Talks for 'The Other City' during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival at the School of Visual Arts Theater on April 26, 2010 in New York City.
Journalist/producer Jose Antonio Vargas speaks during the premiere & Tribeca Talks for 'The Other City' during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival at the School of Visual Arts Theater on April 26, 2010 in New York City.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

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A growing movement among undocumented college students that involves "coming out" with their immigration status has now inspired the same from a well-known journalist, Pulitzer-winner Jose Antonio Vargas. But how will it affect the debate raging in Washington?

Vargas' confession that he is undocumented, published yesterday in The New York Times Magazine, has drawn intense reaction while attaching a white-collar identity to the debate over illegal immigration.

Today's AirTalk, hosted by the Los Angeles Times' David Lazarus, took up the Vargas story along with the broader coming-out movement, the risks involved in going public, and the proposed legislation known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The legislation would grant conditional legal status to qualifying youths brought here before age 16, as Vargas was.

Revealing immigration status as a political act is a movement that has only taken off recently, growing last year as undocumented college students -- many from UCLA -- campaigned for the Dream Act. But one of the guests, San Diego graphic designer Marco Castillo, was asked to reveal his undocumented status in 2006. As a young professional, he decided to become a “poster child” for a local church involved in a pro-immigrant religious campaign called the New Sanctuary Movement.

Castillo, 30, is now married, has a work permit and is working toward a green card. In his favor is the fact that when he entered the country at age three with his family, he entered on a temporary visa.

Undocumented immigrants who enter legally and overstay have a better chance of eventually adjusting their immigration status than those who were smuggled in without papers or with false ones. But while he was still a minor, as his family tried to adjust their status, an attorney's mistake landed him in deportation proceedings, Castillo said.

"The problem from the beginning was that we got into a legal quagmire because we were scammed by a lawyer, who claimed that he could provide us with everything, and it turned out that he provided a scam and took all out money, and turned us in to the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service)," Castillo said. "It's getting close to 17 years now that my case has been through the courts."

Nancy Meza, a recent UCLA graduate who has been active in lobbying for the Dream Act, shared her reasons for revealing her status as an undocumented immigrant.

"I had always known that I was undocumented since the fifth grade, but I really came out to my teachers as a senior in high school," she said. Meza was applying to college and found herself in a difficult situation, facing questions and with her school choices narrowed by her status. "I decided to come out to my teachers and my community so they understood what I was going through."

KPCC's Leslie Berestein Rojas, who writes for Multi-American, a blog about immigration and cultural fusion in Southern California, placed the Vargas story in the context of the larger movement, which over the past year has grown exponentially from what began as a handful of students revealing their status as a political act in support of the Dream Act.

"What's happened is it has become almost a rite as passage,” she said. “ These kids...wanted to put a face on whose these beneficiaries would be. Of course, now with Mr. Vargas coming out, that puts a whole other face on this."

Vargas' disclosure carries substantial risk, potentially threatening him with not only deportation, but loss of income and possibly criminal sanctions as well. The Obama administration has stated that college students brought here as minors are not a priority for deportation. But for working adults like Vargas, the stakes are especially high.

Still, the coming-out movement may have long-term repercussions similar to that of the gay rights movement, whose language undocumented students have borrowed, said David Leopold, an immigration attorney based in Cleveland and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association.

"I think back to 15 or 20 years ago, or earlier, in the gay rights movement, when people similarly began to 'come out'," Leopold said. "When I went to high school in the seventies, we thought of gays and lesbians very differently than my kids, who have finished high school now and finished college, think of gays and lesbians. They are much more accepted as part of American culture, as they well should be, because of the contributions that everybody makes. And I think the same thing is going to happen here."

Is Vargas’ high-profile “coming out” the beginning of a new immigration reform movement? Would you have “come out” if you were in Vargas’ shoes? What do you think should happen to him and people in a similar position?


Marco Castillo, Came out in 2006 as undocumented to be the “poster child” of an immigration advocacy organization

Nancy Meza, a recent UCLA graduate who chose to divulge her undocumented status

Leslie Berestein Rojas, Journalist, KPCC

David Leopold, Immigration Lawyer based in Cleveland & former President, American Immigration Lawyers Association