Define American

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'I Have a Dream': An Undocumented Immigrant Version

| Jose Antonio Vargas

To me, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech during the historic March in Washington -- given 50 years ago today -- stands tall alongside the Declaration of Independence, the phrase "I have a dream" as intrinsic and essential to the American spirit as the promise that "all men are created equal." We live in a country, after all, that dares its people to dream big.

Surely all Americans are thinking of Dr. King's 1,670-word speech today, and creating their own versions. As one of our country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants -- many of us Americans in all but paper -- here is mine.

"I have a dream"... of citizenship, in a country I call my home, to a nation I want to keep contributing to.

"I have a dream"... of having a driver's license, of getting a work permit, of not being constrained by a broken immigration system.

"I have a dream"...of not being separated from my family and hugging my Mama, whom I haven't seen in person in 20 years. I cannot leave the U.S; there's no guarantee I'd be allowed back, and she's been denied a visa to come here.

"I have a dream"... of not being judged by the pieces of papers I lack, but by the content of my character and the talent and skills I offer.

"I have a dream"... of not living in fear, of not hiding in shame, of not being subjected by the law but being served by justice.

"I have a dream"... of being a free human being.

I am a student of the civil rights movement -- not only Dr. King's sacrifices and struggles, but also of Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, of John Lewis and Fred Shuttlesworth, of Bayard Rustin, and especially James Baldwin, the writer who most influences my work. Tired of lying about my undocumented status to friends and colleagues, and longing to connect with my mother in the Philippines (the broken immigration system have kept us apart), I publicly disclosed my undocumented status in June 2011. Since then, I founded the Define American campaign to help elevate how we talk about immigration through media and culture, and I've been filming a documentary called "Documented" to chronicle -- indeed, to document -- my undocumented journey. Filming has taken me more than once to Alabama, the epicenter of the civil rights movement. Nearly 50 years after the tragic events that marked segregated Alabama in 1963 -- among them, the bombing of the 16th Church Baptist Church where four black girls were killed -- Alabama passed HB 56 in 2011, then the toughest immigration law in the country. Until the law was partly invalidated, it was a state crime for undocumented immigrants like me to be in the state. Schools were required to ask their students for legal papers. Standing outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, I couldn't help but think of Dr. King during my first trip to Alabama. Inevitably, I connected the dots.

Immigrant rights are civil rights. The struggle continues. The dreams -- and DREAMers -- live on.

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