Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old honor student in Mississippi who has spoken out against the deportations of undocumented immigrants at great personal risk, is the winner of the 2017 Ridenhour Truth-Telling.

Vargas — who has been in the US since she was 7 years old — participated in a press conference after watching federal agents remove her brother and father from their small home in February. Immediately after speaking out, Vargas was herself detained for nine days in a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Louisiana. Though she was released, the Department of Homeland Security has not rescinded the deportation order against her.

Vargas’s lawyers are currently working to get the deportation order against her withdrawn, fearing it could be enforced at any point. Like Vargas, over one million undocumented immigrants are eligible for relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, created by President Barack Obama. But the future of the program is uncertain under President Donald Trump.

The Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize is an annual award given to individuals “who persevere in the act of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice, or illuminate a more just vision of society.”

The selection committee said:

When Vargas participated in a press conference addressing recent ICE enforcement actions, we were struck by her willingness to set aside the obvious threats to her own freedom and speak out on behalf of other DREAMers who came to this country as children and have since become fully-engaged members of their communities.

We are honored to present the award to this young woman, an aspiring math teacher who worked hard, pursued an education, and whose only so-called “crime” was staying in America with her family when she was 7 years old.

At a time when American values are under assault, the selection committee saw an urgency in recognizing the fierce resistance Vargas demonstrated by speaking truth to power.

Two weeks after ICE arrested her family members, Vargas took the microphone at a press conference in Jackson, Mississippi to call on the new White House to respect the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“Today my father and brother await deportation while I continue to fight this battle as a DREAMer to help contribute to this country, which I feel that is very much my country,” she said.

Minutes later, as she rode away from the press conference in a friend’s car, ICE agents stopped and detained Vargas. According to a legal filing in her case, one of the immigration officials who she saw during the raid on her family home said, “Remember me? You know who we are. You know why we’re here.”

The decision by federal authorities to target an immigrant for deportation apparently because she chose to speak openly is an attack on the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

But as Vargas reminds us, “I spoke up when given the opportunity because I believe deeply that immigrants in the United States are an asset to our country and deserve full citizenship. Our immigration system is tearing families apart and the immigrant community lives in fear. I want to help change that, so I felt I had to stand for what I believe and show who we are and why we matter.”

2017 Prize for Truth-Telling Speeches

Speech Transcripts

JOSÉ ANDRÉS:  All right, hello people of America, how are you? All right! Thank you very much for inviting me to be here and to give some remarks. Randy, thank you, because sometimes I feel guilty when you come to events like this because yes, we are giving a speech and yes, we are all eating and meeting people. But I sometimes wonder why we are not on the fields, in the places that we should be knocking on the doors to make change happen. [applause] Yeah, you can clap, but it’s okay we’re having this amazing event.

But I — sometimes when we talk and we don’t do. And here we are celebrating this amazing woman that unfortunately cannot be with us today. We are really celebrating Daniela Vargas, a DREAMer. And it’s very funny because I love to prepare my remarks one minute before I’m about to give them, it’s how —  and I never change. That’s why I behave better. And if you Google DREAMer, it’s funny because it’s a person who dreams, no, not bad. But then it says a person who is idealistic and practical. Which is almost a negative. So we need to change that because here we are precisely celebrating a person who is practical, a person who was 22-years-old and she decided to speak up when she saw injustice just happen right in her house after taking the brother and the father away.

And that’s what we are celebrating, the doers, the people that decide to speak up, to raise their voice, to say this is wrong and we can do better. And the people that even don’t have an American passport are people that probably love our country even more than any one of us because nothing was given to them, they had to work hard to get what they got. And when I came the first time to America, as a Navy boy in the Spanish Navy, and I saw the American flag and the stars, I always, I always, will tell this story that I always thought that the stars, the stars had everything to do with the beautiful night sky. A night sky of dreams, a night sky of possibilities where in America all was possible.

And this is what we are here for, and that’s why Daniela Vargas decided to speak up. Not only to protect her family and father and brother, not only to talk on behalf of those 11 plus million undocumented, to represent every one of them. But also to represent every one of us. Those are what dreamers are, people that look at the horizon like you and I, but those dreamers are able to see beyond the horizon, are able to see that it’s worth to be fighting for, for what is simply right. This salad you’ve been eating today probably, probably — that same salad that they are having at the White House or the same salad they are having at the Hill probably has been picked by an undocumented farmer somewhere in the United States of America. And this is a big lie that we need to transform into good.

On making sure that every one of those ghosts that work our fields, in our restaurants, in our markets, in our boats, those 11 million undocumented that have no voice, they found a voice by only Daniela Vargas to stand up. And I want you to give a big round of applause to see if she can hear us, wherever she is in Mississippi. Big round of applause to her. [applause]

Yeah, I think she hears, she deserves it. So guys, when we all clap, it’s worth nothing if where we don’t leave those moments that we all gather and the people that we believe in the same ideals. If we only clap and we don’t do anything else, we are only like seals in the zoo being fed sardines. Yeah, take it personally. Because we all should be taking it personally. It’s a moment to start asking the White House, President Trump to start fulfilling his promises of not deporting any DREAMer under DACA. He promised that, he should stick by his promises. And more important, we should be asking every senator and every congressman to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform to stop wasting time on kicking people out and building stupid walls. But if we are going to build walls, let’s do the walls I believe in, walls that unite people. Let’s build walls to build hospitals, community centers and schools.

And then together, we will see that what Daniela Vargas is doing is not building a wall, but building a beautiful bridge, a bridge that is bringing us to this horizon of hope that people like her see and that is only reminding everybody of us why are we supporting the ideals that America stands for. So every, every undocumented in America are probably sending the sign to every person in the world that those stars are precisely the stars of this country, of this amazing United States of America where everything is possible if you dream it, and that we will give the opportunity to those dreamers to be like you and like me.

Yes, you can clap to Daniela Vargas again. [applause] And I want to introduce — Daniela cannot be with us today, but here we have to receive the award on her behalf, Greisa Martinez. Please, a big round of applause to Greisa. [applause] 

GREISA MARTINEZ ROSAS:  Hello, everyone. My name is Greisa Martinez Rosas. I serve as the advocacy director for United We Dream. We are the largest undocumented youth-led network in the country. And before I share the remarks that I know that Dany would have wanted to deliver herself, I wanted us to take some time to applaud the service and the folks that made our food, that served it to us and that are present in this room. [applause] Thank you.  I was talking to one of them earlier, and they reminded me of my mom.

So, I think my name, again, is Greisa. I am undocumented, unafraid, and here to stay no matter what Donald Trump says. [applause] And I am humbled to be here on behalf of Dany. I think that it is the most terrible thing in life to want to seek freedom and not be able to leave your home for fear of retaliation by the government. And so that is what we’re talking about today.

Dany Vargas is being honored by all of you because she was able to tell the truth in the face of uncertainty, tell the truth in the face of a man that has promised to deport not just her, but 11 million other people. And she told the truth because of love, a love for her father and love for her brother that were raided. Can you just imagine how much courage that took?

At United We Dream, we hear these stories every day. We hear stories of immigrants being treated as subhuman, as people being separated from their families. Just right now, I received the news that Maribel, a mother of three, was deported. She has a child with special needs and tonight the child will not be able to have anyone to take care of them. And that is one of thousands of stories, millions of people that have been separated.

These agents, the ones that are responsible for this mess and for this terror that is happening in our community has been unleashed by Donald Trump and his executive orders. Let us be clear about that. As someone who is a beneficiary of DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and I have also been able to suffer the loss of what it means to have your father torn away from you. And I can definitely understand what Dany felt that day when she decided to speak up. My father was deported eight years ago. And I know that that’s not a unique story, but I also know that it’s what has grounded Dany and I in our courage, in our determination to be able to speak up.

You know, agents came to Dany’s home. Just imagine this. You’re at home, you’re hanging out with your dad and your brother, probably making fun of each other as I know my sisters and I do. And then all of a sudden, armed agents come into your home. The put your dad in handcuffs, they take away your brother. And all you can do is hide in a closet. This is what happened to Dany. This is not a movie, this is not fiction, this is America. This is America under Trump.

I don’t know what I would have done, but I know that I am encouraged by what Dani did next. She spoke up. She decided to stand in front of the world and say, “I am undocumented, and I demand to be seen as human and I demand for people to see my brother and my father human as well.” [applause]

And because she did that, there’s millions of people, hundreds of thousands of people, got together and they stood behind her. And there was a hash tag that came out that said “Free Dany.” Raise your hand if you saw the articles about what happened after that. People, and I’m sure people around this room, signed petitions, called their members of Congress. And now today, Dany because of her courage, is free. [applause]

United We Dream is committed to making sure that that story continues. But just yesterday, we found out about another story of Juan Manuel Montes. He is an undocumented young person living in California. And he was stripped away from his family and deported. This is after Trump said to our faces that this would not happen to us. This is after General Kelly, his Secretary of Homeland Security, looked into our faces and said that this was not the America he wanted to be.

You know, people like Dany are just ordinary people. We’re not the– we don’t come at this place because we feel like we have to be heroes or because we feel like we have to show up and seek the limelight. We are doing this because of survival, Dany did this for survival. And just like Dany spoke up, Juan Manuel has spoken up and he said he wants to come home. And we need your support to make sure that he does. [applause]

Dany Vargas has courageously told the truth, and in doing so set off a chain of events that cannot be stopped anymore. And in you honoring her today, it says those chain of events, the allies, all across the country will come to her heed and that of other undocumented immigrant people when we call on you. And we’re so happy that you’re showing up.

You know, let’s be clear about what’s happening right now. Donald Trump is building up a mass deportation machine. He is determined to put poor black and brown people of color that are undocumented in detention centers, in detention camps. And he’s not going to stop unless courageous people like Dany, unless courageous people like in this room, we stand up and say enough.

At United We Dream, we are committed. Last night, I had a conversation with the mothers of undocumented young people and they said to me, “What do I do to help my child? What do I do to help myself?” And I wish I had the answer. I wish that I could say, “If you follow this strategy, for sure you’re going to be safe.” But I can’t do that. What I do know, though, is that at United We Dream, we are committed to continue to fight back, and we need you to have our backs, now more than ever. [applause]

The government and the pundits will lie about undocumented immigrants. We have seen that already. They will lie about the actions that they’re taking and their officers are taking, and they’re going to make it so that we’re so marginalized that no one’s going to want to come to our heed. We have seen this before in our history, and I ask you to join United We Dream, to join Dany in stopping them and rewriting history one more time.

As my mother always taught me to say, is to say with humbleness, I thank you for your love, for your courage in showing up. I ask that you use the talents that God has given you to stand up firmly in this moment. And I thank you for being as stars of light and of courage. Thank you so much. [applause] Thank you so much.

With that, we couldn’t get Dany here, but she wants to be here in spirit and she sent you all a message. So, if the folks in the back can help us play it, thanks.

DANIELA VARGAS: It is an honor to accept the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling. I never expected to receive an immense amount of support from people back home as well as people I have never even met before. I am humbled by the actions that you all took to stand for me as an immigrant to this country and for that I am very grateful.

I came to this country when I was just seven. This is where I grew up. This is where I learned to skateboard, to play soccer, softball, basketball and even trumpet. This is where I pursued my dreams by finishing school to look forward to my future. I love this country and it is the only home I know.

Being detained was not something I expected. I envisioned completing my education, becoming a math teacher and later contributing to this great country. Now, I constantly wonder what my future will look like. I wonder if I will be allowed to stay in this country that I call home, or will my dreams just simply shatter?

When I spoke my truth, I spoke on behalf of the immigrant society as a whole, the injustices and our experiences. My truth is not unique. My truth is simply the truth. Immigrants are an asset to this great country, but our immigrant system is tearing our families apart. No one should leave home that morning afraid to not return that evening to have dinner with their families. I am so grateful to have been heard. I know a more just society is possible.

Thank you, guys. My name is Daniela Vargas, but I go by Dany, and Free Dany.