Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ own experience with his journey as an undocumented immigrant prompted him to publicly declare his status in a piece that ran in "The New York Times Magazine" about 10 years ago where he outlined the struggles he faced as he built his career in the United States.
It also caused him to start Define American, a “culture change organization that uses the power of narrative to humanize conversations about immigrants.”
Define American also consults with entertainment executives to help provide insight to develop more realistic immigrant characters on television. The company says undocumented immigrants make up 24% of the population, despite being represented in 63% of immigrants on-screen.
“Immigration has become a third-rail in American politics. I would argue that that’s actually because we don’t really understand the issue from the perspective of the people who are directly impacted by it,” Vargas tells Inside the Issues. “So much of the conversation around the issue is, ‘What do Republicans think?,’ ‘What do Democrats think?,’ ‘What’s happening in D.C.?.’ then we’re not actually investigating what’s happening in our own communities.”
He says he has been frustrated with communicating the basic facts about immigrants to the American population.
“The reality, for example, that the fastest growing undocumented populations in this country are coming from Asia — not Latin America. The fact that immigration doesn’t only impact the Latina and the Latino community. We don’t even talk about Black immigrants. The Black immigrant population in this country has increased five times since the year I was born in 1981,” he said. “So, we don’t see the issue in it’s full scope and then we don’t understand the issue as a process.”
Define American is trying to reflect the diversity of those stories in scripted television by helping writers and producers come up with storylines that are realistic, authentic and portrayed as a three-dimensional person.
“Everyone knows somebody who’s undocumented, right? Because you work with somebody, went to school with somebody, someone’s your neighbor, and yet those narratives are not the ones we hear about in the media,” he explained. “There are 45 million immigrants in this country. I don’t know if people know that. Forty-five million immigrants. Eleven million are undocumented.”
They consulted for shows like Superstore where one of the characters, Matteo, is an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines.
“In the show he ghosts on dates, he’s competitive, he’s actually a three-dimensional person, so when immigration officials show up, people — viewers — what we found in our study — and at Define American research is really important to us — so we actually research how do you compare a character like Matteo to another undocumented character that you see on TV,” he said. “What we found is when you present a character as a three-dimensional person, viewers are actually much more willing to advocate on behalf of that person, for example, compared to somebody that you just see. Whenever you see an undocumented character. Either they’re crying, they’re yelling or they’re just about to get arrested.”
In 2014, Vargas found himself detained and in a detention center surrounded by kids who were with him.
“I still can’t really process what it was like to stare at the eyes of those boys ages 7 to 14 in that jail cell. It’s a jail cell, by the way, it’s not a detention center,” he remembered.
At Define American, they work to expose how immigrants are treated and how it relates to others.
“We’ve got to be able to see those kids as our kids, not some strangers, not as Central American kids,” he said. “That could have been your kid. So that’s what we have to get across.”
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