Filipino Pulitzer winner in US illegal immigrant

/ 04:32 AM June 24, 2011

MAN ON THE RUN. Vargas reveals his 2-decade long secret on TV. DEFINE AMERICAN WEBSITE

WASHINGTON—A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the Virginia Tech massacre for the Washington Post went public on Wednesday with a secret he has been keeping for nearly two decades: He is an illegal immigrant.

Jose Antonio Vargas, whose mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in California in 1993 when he was 12, says now he wants to push Congress to pass a bill called the DREAM Act that would allow people like him to become citizens if they go to college or serve in the military.


“I’m done running. I’m exhausted,” Vargas wrote in a New York Times Magazine essay posted online on Wednesday. “I don’t want that life anymore.”

He said he didn’t know what the consequences would be of telling his story, adding he was seeking legal counsel to review his options.


Speaking on ABC, Vargas said: “In my heart, I’m an American.”

“I am one of many, many people, and we are not who you think we are. We don’t just mow your lawns and babysit your kids and serve you tacos … We do a really good job doing that, but we do other things, and we are a part of this society,” he said.

In the Times article, Vargas said: “On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream. But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality.”

Fake green card

Vargas, 30, said he didn’t know about his citizenship status until four years after he arrived in the United States, when he applied for a driver’s permit and handed a clerk his green card.

“This is fake,” a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk said. “Don’t come back here again.”

Vargas confronted his grandfather, who acknowledged he purchased the green card and other fake documents.


“I remember the very first instinct was, OK, that’s it, get rid of the accent,” Vargas told ABC. “Because I just thought to myself, you know, I couldn’t give anybody any reason to ever doubt that I’m an American.”

He convinced himself that if he worked hard enough and achieved enough, he would be rewarded with citizenship, Vargas wrote in the magazine piece.


His grandfather—who he said emigrated legally in 1984 from Zambales province—imagined the fake documents would help Vargas get low-wage jobs.

He said one of his early memories of America was of a boy in school asking him, “What’s up?” and other kids laughed when he answered, “The sky.”

Later, Vargas said, “I won the eighth-grade spelling bee by memorizing words I couldn’t properly pronounce (the winning word was ‘indefatigable’).”

College seemed out of reach, until Vargas told Mountain View High School principal Pat Hyland and school district superintendent Rich Fisher about his problem. They became mentors and surrogate parents, eventually finding a scholarship fund for high-achieving students that allowed him to attend San Francisco State University.

Vargas was hired for internships at The San Francisco Chronicle and Philadelphia Daily News. He was denied an internship at The Seattle Times because he didn’t have all the documents they required.

The Washington Post

But he kept applying and got an offer from The Washington Post.

The newspaper required a driver’s license, so Vargas said his mentors helped him get one from Oregon, which has less stringent requirements than some other states.

‘It was wrong’

Once hired full-time at the Post, he used the license to cover Washington events, including a state dinner at the White House.

He wrote that he was nearly paralyzed with anxiety that his secret would be found out. He tried to avoid reporting on immigration policy, but at times, it was impossible. At one point, he wrote about then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s position on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

Vargas eventually told his mentor, Peter Perl, now the newspaper’s training director. Perl told him that once he had accomplished more, they would tell then editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Post chair Don Graham together. They kept the secret until Vargas left the paper.

Washington Post spokesperson Kris Coratti condemned their actions.

“What Jose did was wrong. What Peter did was wrong,” Coratti said. “We are also reviewing our internal procedures, and we believe this was an isolated incident of deception.”

Story killed

The Post originally planned to publish Vargas’ story, but decided not to. Coratti would not say why.

“We think it is a really interesting first-person account, and we’re glad he found a place to share his story,” she said.

In an article on its website, the Post reported that Vargas approached his old newspaper in March about writing his story. It was to be published on Sunday. But executive editor Marcus Brauchli killed it several days before its scheduled publication.

William Perez, a professor at California’s Claremont Graduate University, said “coming out” as an illegal immigrant could provide some protection for a young person facing deportation by drumming up support and public outcry.

It also raises awareness that many in the same situation can’t simply apply for citizenship in the United States. They would have to go back to their countries and start the process from scratch, which could take years.

Few options

Twelve states now provide in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and an increasing number of undocumented college graduates have “come out” in recent years.

“They’re frustrated because they have the preparation, they have the skills and they have no options,” Perez said. “So for them, this is one of the few remaining options to try to influence national policies.”

Vargas shared a Pulitzer Prize for the Post’s coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings in which a South Korean student went on a shooting rampage, killing 32 people before committing suicide.

A 2006 series Vargas wrote on the HIV/AIDS epidemic inspired a documentary film. Last year, he wrote a profile of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker.

Most recently, Vargas was a senior contributing editor at Huffington Post. He said he left after less than a year and was worried about a looming deadline: the expiration of his Oregon driver’s license.

Define American

This year, Vargas said he obtained a Washington state driver’s license, which would have given him a five-year reprieve—and meant five more years of lying. He said he couldn’t deal with that.

On Wednesday, he launched a campaign called Define American to use stories of immigrants like him to urge Congress to pursue immigration reform. His high school principal and superintendent have signed on as board members. Reports from AP, AFP and Inquirer Research

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TAGS: Awards, DREAM Act, Hillary Clinton, immigrant, Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post, US State dinner, Virginia Tech massacre
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