Define American – Tell your story


How do YOU define American?


By Jose Antonio Vargas

Never underestimate the power of a story.

This past summer, I wrote an essay detailing my life as an undocumented immigrant. In telling a very personal and specific story — my journey of being sent from the Philippines to America in search of a better life, graduating from public schools and landing jobs at news organizations such as The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, all the while paying taxes without having proper papers — my aim was to illuminate a greater universal truth about our broken immigration system. Now years in the making, this broken system impacts not just millions of immigrants who live in the shadows of a country we love and call home. The dysfunction and inaction also impacts countless honest American citizens — from principals to pastors, coaches to classmates — who have answered a moral calling in helping immigrants in various sectors of society. Together, undocumented immigrants like me and the citizens who aid us are increasingly telling the truth about our broken system. And by telling the truth — by telling and sharing our stories — we are standing up for justice, and for each other.

We need your help. How do YOU define American? Starting today, we are asking YOU to share your story with us via video, photo, audio or text:

The following questions may help focus your thoughts for your story:

  • Why is America special to you?
  • What values do we, as Americans, share?
  • What is the role of immigrants and immigration in America?
  • What is your family’s immigration story?

Share your story now. Our goal is to collect 500 more stories within the next week.

Define American, nearly five months old, is committed to elevating the immigration conversation in our country, utilizing new approaches to address a problem that’s become a third-rail issue in American life. When my essay for the New York Times Magazine debuted in late June, it became one of the most shared stories online; #Undocumented Immigrant became a trending topic on Twitter. And though not everyone can get their stories published in a prominent news organization, we now have social media — from Facebook, Twitter to YouTube, among others — that allows us to document our realities and bear witness to each other in ways big and small. Indeed, every day undocumented Americans and our allies are “coming out,” sharing their stories and organizing within their social networks.

Technology is helping put a face to an often intangible, controversial issue. Technology is making immigration more human. And that’s at the heart of what Define American is all about.

A wide array of people from all walks of life — many of them recognizable — were among the first participants to “define American.” But two of the most touching testimonials for me are the videos from two ordinary Americans: one documented, the other undocumented, both Americans.

I met Julie Erfle in late September, when I was invited to speak at the National Conference on Citizenship, now in its 66h year. Julie, I would later learn, is the wife of Nick Erfle, a Phoenix police officer, her high school sweetheart, who was shot and killed by a previously deported undocumented immigrant in September 2007. Nick’s death helped spark the anti-immigrant wave in Arizona, culminating in the passage and signing of SB1070 last year. People expected Julie, a white middle class woman, to ride the wave. Instead, she has called for the need for consensus and finding common ground — for humanity. She shares her story in a video.

A few weeks ago, on a reporting trip to Alabama, which surpassed Arizona in passing the country’s most draconian law, I met Victor, 19 years old. Thirteen years ago, he crossed the border with his parents and settled in the South. He’s a smart, thoughtful student — the kind who got the highest score during a citizenship test in his 4th period U.S. History class. “Even though I’m undocumented — ‘illegal’ as many people say — I love this country. I’ve studied the history of this country,” he recently told me. “I want to be a history teacher.” But he’s not in college right now. He’d love to go to either the University of Alabama in Birmingham or Auburn University, but neither offers in-state tuition to undocumented students like Victor, even though he grew up in the state and calls Alabama home. Despite the challenges, he keeps a positive outlook. In his video, Victor said: “I define American as the betterment of the self. America to me is a country, as well as an idea, as a belief. A belief and a notion that you can move upwards.”

Join Julie, Victor and others and share your story:

How do YOU define American?


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