“Too often when we talk about immigration we talk with people who already agree with us,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, immigration activist, and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas, who has traveled around the country on a speaking tour in promotion of his films Documented and White People. “I talked to many young white students who seemed to not know where they’re from. How can you ask me where I come from if you don’t know where you’re from? ‘White’ is not a country.”

Vargas spoke before an audience of 200 students in Professor Robert Scheer’s communications classroom on Sept. 29 for the first forum in a new series entitled Media and Social Change. The series is presented by the Institute for Development and Empowerment (IDEA) and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP). The goal of the program is to expose students to the complex issues surrounding diversity and to challenge students to think outside the norm by having experts discuss their experience and expertise in the matters at hand.

The event began with a screening of Documented, the 2013 documentary by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas, who “outed” himself as such in a 2011 New York Times Magazine article.

The screening was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Scheer and consisting of Vargas, filmmaker and producer Janet Yang (Documented, The Joy Luck Club), and USC professor and CCLP faculty fellow Roberto Suro.

Suro pointed out that the conversation immediately became racial.

“I want to step back from this conversation for a second, and note the racialization of the issue,” said Suro. “This conversation went immediately to race. What happens when you look at immigrants as non-white or as members of a racial group? What happens to the dialogue about immigration? You’ve really bought into the frame that is used as the basis of restriction.”

Vargas noted that he and his films are not the only ones to conflate race and immigration. He pointed out that many people use “illegal” and “Mexican” interchangeably.

Scheer cited a new Pew Research Center study that projects immigrants will account for 88 percent of the U.S. population increase, or 103 million people, between 2015 and 2065, as the nation grows to 441 million. The study also predicts that Asians will make up a much larger share of the immigrant population by 2065. Suro said that it’s important to keep in mind that these are just projections, which could be wildly inaccurate. He said the number of immigrants in the U.S. (11 million people) has remained fairly static since 2007.

Vargas pointed out the contributions that immigrants have made and continue to make to America, such as paying state and local taxes and the $100 billion they contribute to the Social Security fund.

One student in attendance said that no matter what facts one has, some people will continue to hold onto their previously held views.

“Politics is not a fact-based activity,” Suro responded. “Politics in this country are not driven by majority views. Right now they’re being driven by a fairly small rump of the Republican Party. The American public is not intrinsically opposed to immigration reform. You distort the picture if you focus only on the small, loud factions.”

Yang said the narrative can and should change, and that it starts with the media and the entertainment industry. In reference to diversity among actors in films and television shows, she said economic realities are driving casting choices. However, she said, “I’m cautiously optimistic” as things begin to change.

When asked what is coming next in terms of immigration reform, Suro said the country is currently in uncharted territory. “There is a lot of uncertainty right now. A significant minority in the right places can stir a reaction.” He pointed out that the legal challenge to President Obama’s executive order on immigration could go to the Supreme Court. That order, issued last November, would allow some immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens or legal resident children to apply for work permits and deportation reprieves.

Suro also pointed out that comprehensive immigration reform would have been passed in 2013 if there had been an up-or-down vote in Congress, but that the minority blocked it. That said, he noted, “the status quo is incredibly generous in terms of immigration flows.”

“As it should be,” said Vargas.

One student asked why immigration authorities did not pursue or deport Vargas after he announced that he’s an undocumented immigrant. In Documented, Vargas expressed surprise at the lack of response.

“There are published policies and a known track record of the circumstances under which people encounter immigration authorities,” said Suro. “You’re an intelligent guy; you know exactly why people get removed. There’s no mystery about it. So why were you surprised?”

“At that point, especially with ICE, we weren’t sure,” Vargas said. “People thought maybe because of all the fraud, they would go after me in that way.” Vargas used fake documents to obtain jobs at several major newspapers around the country, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many others. “Frankly I didn’t really know what to expect.”

Vargas co-founded Define American, a media and culture organization using the power of stories to transcend politics and shift the conversation around immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America. He also launched #EmergingUS, a digital magazine.

The Media and Social Change series continued on Tuesday, Oct. 20 with a panel addressing the issue: “Is higher education failing blacks and Latinos: How a college degree did not protect black and Hispanic wealth through the recent financial turbulence.”