Hoax News Story by Undocumented Activists Raises Serious Questions

Jun 13, 2013
9:24 AM

On June 3 the main Latino Rebels email received a news release via email from a Daniel Vargas, who identified himself as the Communications Director for The Common Application, Inc.

After getting the email forwarded, I began to read it:


I believe this news will be of interest to your readers as it relates to major changes in the undergraduate admissions process for the heavily Latino and historically marginalized undocumented student community.

The Common Application (Common App) has issued a formal apology to undocumented students for years of exclusion and announced that the next generation of the Common App, set to launch August 1, 2013 will include a new category – “Undocumented American.” This is a significant step towards equality for the 488 colleges and universities that use the Common Application for undergraduate admissions. The announcement was made at the 26th Annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) held May 28 – June 1, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.


At first glance, I thought it was amazing news, but after checking a few facts (Vargas’ email was a Gmail account; we made a call to one of our contacts to confirm that if Vargas worked for the Common App; there was no mention of this dramatic press release in the Common App’s NEWS section, I decided to pass on the story, even though there was a very convincing YouTube video.

Then the story appeared in outlets the Rebels have tons of respect for and it was actually tweeted out by some of the country’s top immigration reform leaders. This is where the Latino Rebels Twitter profile tweeted it out through me (I am one of several admins), because when I saw the sources, I believed the story was now verified (even though I didn’t notice that the Colorlines Twitter profile was wrong):


So after this happened, we were about the look into the story some more, but then we saw this tweet from the HuffPost’s Elise Foley:

Soon we got another email from Daniel Vargas on June 5. The whole story was a hoax, as his release explains:

Chicago, IL – The Common Application, Inc. (Common App), used by 488-plus colleges and universities for undergraduate admissions services, was the ‘victim’ of a hoax on Tuesday as they were forced to deny fake news that the organization had started treating undocumented students like U.S. citizens.  Undocumented activist David Ramirez and so-called ‘illegal-lovers’ – anonymous U.S. citizens who work to support the undocumented community – took credit for the hoax, initially carried out last Thursday, May 30 at a major higher education conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“It all stems from a real place – no tengo papeles – and our community is under attack. I’m contributing to the immigrant rights struggle in the U.S.” said David Ramirez on his decision to impersonate ‘Daniel J. Vargas,’ the Communication Director of the Common App; a fictional character used by the activists to fool organizers of the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) into allowing 23 year-old Ramirez to take the stage and announce that the Common App was apologizing to undocumented students for years of discrimination.

As it stands, the Common App requires undocumented applicants to undergo a confusing process where they must disclose to colleges and universities their foreign citizenship, country of birth, and lack of a social security number; a process that often results in colleges and universities classifying undocumented applicants as international students.  Undocumented student activists have decried this practice as a misclassification and discriminatory practice.

More details about the hoax were shared here. So I reached out to Ramirez about why this had happened and why the hoax, and this is what he wrote back to me:

Augusto Boal writes, “Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.” “[Theatre of the Oppressed’s] objective is to encourage autonomous activity, to set a process in motion, to stimulate transformative creativity, to change spectators into protagonists. And it is precisely for these reasons that the Theatre of the Oppressed should be the initiator of changes the culmination of which is not the aesthetic phenomenon but real life.”

Reaction: We fooled the organizers of the conference for months, the 2,000 person conference/audience, three news sources, a college president, a U.S. Representative, national immigration groups, and tens of thousands of people. We fooled them into seeing the world as it should be. Thats the empowerment of theater. The world as it is assigns roles, says some can be board members of the Common App, while others can never go to college because they’re undocumented. Theater doesn’t obey the world as it is; it lets us create the world as it should be for all to see. Theater is away tor the community to fight back, to fight for equality and college access.

He then shared the following quote from “Mitzy,” an undocumented student at Freedom University in Georgia: “The Common Application oppresses our community, segregates our nation’s higher education system by immigration status, so our community is fighting back. I feel like the headline should read ‘Brown v. Board retracted: Supreme Court Blames Activists for Hoax Ruling.'”

I get it, and I understand the intent, but reporting news is all about trust and honesty. I didn’t trust the original story to begin with but then I trusted the sources and outlets that were reporting the original story, which led us to tweet it out once. Foley is right: “Reporters don’t think making stuff up and lying to them is a good way to draw attention to your cause.” I also don’t know if the final end goal got the activists the reaction they wanted. Did the effort move mountains? No. Did it raise awareness? Maybe.

The story really didn’t get amplified outside of a small portion of the Latino media space, and when it did, it led to confusion and misinformation. From what I can gather, most people are talking about why a hoax was created in the first place and not about the campaign’s original intent.

If activists want to expand the tent and get the Common App to actually change its policy, other authentic strategies should be employed. One thing that REALLY worked was the posting of a video in talking with the Common App. I don’t know that if this is “MSNBC” or not or whether the recording is legal, but at least you get a response from the Common App and you can listen to their reaction:

Yes, it is an issue and one that matters. That is the goal we should all strive for.


Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77 on Twitter) founded LatinoRebels.com (part of Latino Rebels, LLC) in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  UnivisionForbesand The New York Times.