We Are Witnesses: Becoming an American sparks a difficult but honest conversation about the U.S. immigration system.

By Jose Antonio Vargas

Of all the questions I get asked every day, the one that crystallizes just how simplistic and uninformed the conversation about immigration is this: “Why can’t you just get legal?”

You ask what you don’t know. When it comes to immigration, most Americans I’ve met across the country—online and offline, from people calling for my deportation to people who want me to stay—don’t know a whole lot. Even journalists who cover the issue struggle to report and frame it outside a largely partisan, pro/anti-immigrant lens, too often using loaded language (“amnesty,” “anchor babies,” “chain migration”) that limits knowledge rather than expands it.

The search for genuine dialogue—the need for complexity and nuance—is manifested to great effect in We Are Witnesses: Becoming an American. With this video series, The Marshall Project has carefully curated a selection of stories that demonstrate the multiple dimensions of what we refer to singularly as “immigration.” The straight-to-camera testimonies don’t fit the typical legal vs. illegal binary that characterizes much of the discourse. The stories they tell are not laden with “talking points” that signal deference to any ideology. They tell truths that challenge and illuminate our understanding of how we got to where we are.

A 14-year-old in Honduras swam across rivers in search of a better life. He learned that when Border Patrol catches a minor, they don’t return them to where they came from—they help them look for their relatives in the United States. “So, I started looking for the Border Patrol,” Teofilo Chavez says. “I basically gave myself to them.”

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