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If Ted talks daily, I'm Elise Hu. Today on the show, immigrant rights advocate Jose Antonio Vargas, here's his big idea. What we don't understand about immigration is what we don't understand about ourselves. In his Ted 20-20 talk. He shares his personal story about where he came from and what it's like to immigrate to America to help us think more deeply about who we are and what citizenship really means. Four years after arriving in the United States, like any typical 16 year old, I went to get my driver's permit after I showed the clerk my immigration papers, my green card, she told me, was fake.
Don't come back here again, she said. That's how I found out I was in America illegally and I'm still here illegally. I'm a journalist and filmmaker. I believe in stories. And what I learned that what most people don't understand about immigration is what they don't understand about themselves, their families, old migration stories and the processes they have to go through before green cards and walls even existed or what shape their understanding of citizenship itself. I was born in the Philippines when I was 12.
My mother sent me to live with her parents, my grandparents, or, as we say in Tagalog, Lolo and Lola. Lolo's name was Theofilos when he legally immigrated to America and became a naturalized citizen. He changed his name from Theofilos to Ted after Ted Danson from the TV show Cheers. Can't get any more American than that. Lola's favorite song was Frank Sinatra's My Way. And when it came to figuring out how to get his only grandson me to America, he decided to do it his way.
According to Lolo, there was no easy and simple way to get me here, so Lolo saved the four thousand five hundred dollars. That's a lot of money for a security guard to make no more than eight dollars an hour to pay for the fake green card and for a smuggler to bring me to the US. So that's how I got here. I can't tell you how many times people tell me that their ancestors came to America the right way, to which I remind them America's definition of the right way has been changing ever since the first ship of settlers dropped anchor.
America, as we know it, is more than a piece of land, particularly because the land that now makes up the United States of America used to belong to other people in other countries. America, as we know it, is also more than a nation of immigrants. There are two groups of Americans who are not immigrants, Native Americans or indigenous to this land, and who were killed in acts of genocide. And African-Americans were kidnapped, shipped and enslaved to build this country.
America is, above all, an idea, however unrealized and imperfect one that only exists because the first settlers came here freely without worry of citizenship. So where did you come from? How did you get here? Who paid? All across America, in front of diverse audiences, conservatives and progressives, high school students and senior citizens. I've asked those questions as a person of color. I always get asked where I'm from, as in where are you from?
From. So I've asked white people where they're from, from to after asking a student at the University of Georgia where he was from, he said, I'm American. I know. He said, but where are you from? I'm white. He replied, but white is not a country. I said, Where are your ancestors from? When he replied with a shrug, I said. Well, where did you come from? How did you get here, who paid?
He couldn't answer. I don't think you can talk about America as America without answering those three core questions. Immigration is America's lifeline. How this country has replenished itself for centuries from the settlers and the revolutionaries who populated the original 13 colonies to the millions of immigrants predominantly from Europe, who relentlessly colonized this land. Even though Native Americans were already here and had their own tribal identities and ideas about citizenship, they were not considered U.S. citizens until the nineteen twenty four Indian Citizenship Act, the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that black Americans fought for inspired the nineteen sixty five Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended America's race based exclusionary system that had lasted for 40 years.
I could go on and on here, but my point, my larger point is this how much to any of us, whether immigrants of the past or the present, know of these crucial parts of American history? How much of this history makes up the actual US citizenship test? Have you ever seen it? It's a mostly oral tests and government officers ask applicants up to 10 of the one hundred questions to pass. Applicants must get at least six answers right.
I looked at the test recently and I was aghast at the questions posed. What constitutes acceptable answers to the glaring omissions that there's a question about the Statue of Liberty where it is. There's no question about Ellis Island, about the United States as an immigrant nation and the countless anti-immigrant laws that were passed. There's nothing about Native American history. There's a question about what Martin Luther King Jr. did, but largely there's inadequate and irresponsible context about African-Americans. Here's an example.
Question number seventy four under the American History section asks applicants to, quote, name one problem that led to the Civil War. There are three acceptable answers. Slavery, states rights, economic reasons. Did my Lola and Lola get that question? If they did get the question, do they even understand the history behind it? How about my uncles and aunts and cousins and millions of other immigrants who had to take that test to become Americans? What do immigrants know about America before we get here?
What kind of citizenship are we applying for? And is that the same kind of citizenship we actually want to be a part of? Come to think of it, I have been thinking a lot about this what a dignified citizenship look like, how can I ask for it? When I just arrived here twenty six years ago, when black and native people who have been here in America for hundreds of years are still waiting for the answers. One of my favorite writers is Toni Morrison in nineteen ninety six a year before I found that I was in the country illegally, my eighth grade class was assigned to read The Bluest Eye Morrison's first book.
Instantly, the book challenged me to ask hard questions. Why does Pecola Breedlove, this young black girl at the center of the book, why did she want Blue Eyes? Who told her to want it? Why did she believe them? Morrison said she wrote the book to illustrate what happens when a person surrenders to what she called the master narrative. Definition's Morrison said belonged to the definers, not the defined. Once I realized that I was here illegally, I convinced myself that if I was not a legal citizen by birth or by law, another kind of citizenship was possible citizenship or participation.
I engage. I engage with all kinds of Americans, even Americans who don't want me here. Citizenship, a contribution I give back to my community in whatever ways I can as an undocumented entrepreneur. And yes, there is such a thing. I have employed many US citizens citizenship, education. We can't wait for others to educate us about the past and how we got to this present. We have to educate ourselves and our circles citizenship as something greater than myself.
We are, I think, individually and collectively rewriting the master narrative of America. The people who were once defined are now doing the defining. They're asking the questions that need to be asked. A core part of that definition is how we define not only who was an American, but what constitutes citizenship, which to me is our responsibility to each other. So consider your own personal narrative and ask yourself, where did you come from? How did you get here?
Who paid? PR ex.