Immigration Debate: 'Define American' Gathers Stories About American Identity

After freshman year of high school, Julia Duperrault's best friend, Mandeep, shared a secret.

"She told me she is an undocumented immigrant," Duperrault said in a new feature from Define American, an advocacy organization dedicated to "changing the conversation about immigration."

"You know those people who just come over the border and aren't supposed to be here?" Duperrault recalled her best friend as saying. "Well, I'm like that." Define American was founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who revealed his own secret in a June New York Times Magazine article: he, too, is undocumented.

"It means going about my day in fear of being found out," wrote Vargas, who was 12 when he came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993. "It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don't ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful."

Define American's new story feature, available on its website, enables any "immigrant, immigrant ally, or citizen to digitally share their story via videos, audio, photos or text," the organization said in a statement. It allows "anyone, anywhere to share their personal experiences as well as thoughts and beliefs about what it means to be an 'American' today."

"I shared my personal story to lay bare the realities and complexities of living as an undocumented immigrant," Vargas said. "But I'm just one person; it's just one story."

Already, some 500 stories have been assembled from an eclectic mix of Americans, including pundit and comedian Stephen Colbert, hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, founder Craig Newmark, and Twilight: New Moon and A Better Life director Chris Weitz.

A compelling story comes from blogger Julie Erfle, an Arizona resident whose husband, a Phoenix police officer, was killed by an undocumented immigrant. She favors "sensible immigration reform."

"After my husband's death, many had hoped that I, a white, middle class woman, would heed the call for punitive and enforcement-only immigration policies," she said. "But that's a band-aid. One that fails to address the underlying problems, or offer any type of long term solutions.

"Instead it creates a wedge issue, one that encourages division, and fear, and myths, and shuts down the very dialogue that could bring about solutions. I refuse to be part of that equation because America can do better."

In some parts of the country, the calls for immigration reform are being heard. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 131, the second bill of the two-part California Dream Act, allowing undocumented immigrant students to apply for state-funded financial aid for college.

Last week, New York's Board of Regents supported a state version of the federal DREAM Act, the un-passed bill that would grant some undocumented young people legal status in exchange for two years of college or military service.

Duperrault said her best friend is the sister she never had. Mandeep was a pre-med student after graduating with honors from Los Altos High School in California. When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement threatened to deport Mandeep, Duperrault and other friends and supporters mounted a petition drive. Thousands of people rallied around her cause on the Internet. Her deportation was temporarily halted, leaving her best friend in "limbo."

"Mandeep, the one voted most likely to save the world defines American and I stand by her side," Duperrault said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez as a Republican. He is a Democrat. Also, Julia Duperrault was in her first year of high school, not college, when her best friend admitted to being an undocumented immigrant.