Now Reading: Jose Antonio Vargas on “[His] Life As an Undocumented Immigrant”

by Latoya Peterson

Jose Antonio VargasLast year, at a Poynter function, I had the privilege of meeting Jose Antonio Vargas in person. Both charming and interesting, with a huge drive to make journalism a true tool of democracy, he seemed like someone I wanted to get to know.

Last week, Vargas wanted the world to get to know exactly who he was. So he took the bold step of writing a piece that could change his life forever. Called “My Life as an Undocumented Worker,” Vargas used the New York Times platform to reveal his secret:

Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. 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. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.

Vargas artfully describes the pain of the political becoming personal:

The debates over “illegal aliens” intensified my anxieties. In 1994, only a year after my flight from the Philippines, Gov. Pete Wilson was re-elected in part because of his support for Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from attending public school and accessing other services. (A federal court later found the law unconstitutional.) After my encounter at the D.M.V. in 1997, I grew more aware of anti-immigrant sentiments and stereotypes: they don’t want to assimilate, they are a drain on society. They’re not talking about me, I would tell myself. I have something to contribute.

Something that I adore about Vargas’ piece is how he quietly discusses class in the context of immigration. As he describes the hurdles he jumps through to obtain forged documents or to participate in society, he makes a few disclosures:

Lolo always imagined I would work the kind of low-paying jobs that undocumented people often take. (Once I married an American, he said, I would get my real papers, and everything would be fine.) But even menial jobs require documents, so he and I hoped the doctored card would work for now. The more documents I had, he said, the better.

While in high school, I worked part time at Subway, then at the front desk of the local Y.M.C.A., then at a tennis club, until I landed an unpaid internship at The Mountain View Voice, my hometown newspaper. First I brought coffee and helped around the office; eventually I began covering city-hall meetings and other assignments for pay.

For more than a decade of getting part-time and full-time jobs, employers have rarely asked to check my original Social Security card. When they did, I showed the photocopied version, which they accepted. Over time, I also began checking the citizenship box on my federal I-9 employment eligibility forms. (Claiming full citizenship was actually easier than declaring permanent resident “green card” status, which would have required me to provide an alien registration number.)

Something I noticed, while working in higher class gigs – the subtle indignities of working are mostly removed. At a certain professional level, you are no longer subjected to random drug tests. You have access to an HR department. And most importantly, there are a lot more assumptions that you are who you say you are. I work in DC, where a security clearance is worth your weight in gold – but outside of that, employers aren’t very strict. They may ask to see your documents once, but that’s all. There is no further interrogation. Especially if you possess the highest work document of all, a US Passport. Then, nothing else is needed.

I think about this gap often in terms of Ana. I mention her from time to time, the woman I used to babysit for. Ana fled the civil war in El Salvador and landed in America, only to flee the abusive husband that had come with her. She and her two kids had made a life for each other, but it was one ruled by fear – fear that their father would arrive in the night, and they would have to run again, and fear that others would show up at their door and ruin what she had worked for. I’m not sure, to this day, of Ana’s legal status – since she was a refugee, she could have been admitted to the United States under legal pretenses – or there may not have been time for that. What I remember the most clearly was Ana’s doctorate degree hanging on the wall. One day, as she was going to work as a nanny for a wealthy white couple, she saw me looking at it and informed me she had been a doctor in El Salvador. She often wanted to practice English with me, in hopes of practicing medicine again one day.

Class factors heavily into perceptions of undocumented workers – so I am glad Vargas chose to share his story. The profile that people who are anti-immigration like to paint are people who come to draw on government benefits or people who just commit crimes. Vargas has ascended to the white collar elite – a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, currently employed at The New York Times.

But Vargas explores still more aspects of the immigration debate through one more disclosure:

Later that school year, my history class watched a documentary on Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco city official who was assassinated. This was 1999, just six months after Matthew Shepard’s body was found tied to a fence in Wyoming. During the discussion, I raised my hand and said something like: “I’m sorry Harvey Milk got killed for being gay. . . . I’ve been meaning to say this. . . . I’m gay.”

I hadn’t planned on coming out that morning, though I had known that I was gay for several years. With that announcement, I became the only openly gay student at school, and it caused turmoil with my grandparents. Lolo kicked me out of the house for a few weeks. Though we eventually reconciled, I had disappointed him on two fronts. First, as a Catholic, he considered homosexuality a sin and was embarrassed about having “ang apo na bakla” (“a grandson who is gay”). Even worse, I was making matters more difficult for myself, he said. I needed to marry an American woman in order to gain a green card.

Tough as it was, coming out about being gay seemed less daunting than coming out about my legal status. I kept my other secret mostly hidden.

Read the whole thing.

Vargas’ decision to embrace the truth so publicly hasn’t been easy. His editor, Chris Suellentrop, posted to the Times’ 6th floor blog about accepting the piece:

That afternoon, Peter called back with the news: Jose Antonio Vargas is an illegal immigrant. He had been planning to tell his story in The Washington Post, but for reasons unknown to him, The Post killed his story on Monday. […] I called Peter and told that we wanted to see Jose’s story, but if there was any chance of closing it in time — of editing it, fact-checking it, photographing Jose, designing it, etc. — we needed to see it right now. Just before 5 p.m., 48 hours before the magazine is supposed to close, Jose e-mailed me a draft of the story.

And within a hour, we decided this wasn’t a story we were going to give to anyone else.

The Washington Post passed. There statement was unsatisfactory to me, but hey, it’s my hometown paper. My heart really wants to believe that the piece was killed because they were worried about Vargas’ safety and legal status – but my more cynical gut says they are worried about seeming too liberal friendly going into 2012.

NPR has been digging up bits and pieces of the story. First they checked in at the Washington Post, to see why they passed.

Post reporter Paul Farhi does give us a clue, though, to the reason the Post spiked the story:

“Given the subject — a reporter’s dishonesty about his personal life — The Post subjected Vargas’s story to an unusual degree of scrutiny. One red flag popped up during weeks of checking: Vargas hadn’t disclosed that he had replaced his expired Oregon driver’s license with a new one issued by Washington state (the license had enabled Vargas to pass airport security and to travel to distant work assignments). Vargas later conceded that he had withheld the information on the advice of his attorney. The disclosure set off internal discussion about whether the newspaper was getting the full story from its former reporter.”

Then, they checked the likelihood of Vargas being deported for his admissions. NPR doesn’t think the odds are high, based on changes in ICE policy:

In memorandums issued by ICE Director John Morton, the agency clarified that its priorities are to focus on illegal immigrants who present “a clear risk to national security.”

In one of the memos, released June 17, Morton said ICE is focused on felons and repeat offenders, gang members, and those with numerous immigration violations such as illegally re-entering the U.S. and committing fraud.

The memo also directs ICE officials to avoid proceedings against a wide array of individuals, including U.S. military veterans, minors and seniors, pregnant women, those who grew up in the U.S. and “long-time lawful permanent residents.”

The Washington Post’s Ombudsman has a better take, asking “Why Did the Post Deport Vargas’s Story?

Why would The Post punt to a rival a riveting, already edited story that could provoke national discussion on immigration — an issue that sorely needs it — and that also included possibly illegal, and perhaps forgivable, conduct by a former Post reporter and current member of management?

Beats the heck out of many in The Post’s newsroom and beats the heck out of me. The cardinal rule of journalism, or politics, is that if there’s bad or questionable information, put it out yourself, be thorough and transparent, and don’t pull any punches.

Brauchli said in an interview with me and in other public statements that he prefers not to discuss internal Post deliberations about news judgment. “We made a judgment not to run the piece,” he said. Fair enough. Few editors go on the record about internal deliberations over a published news story, unless the story later results in accolades and awards.

And, I, too, see cautionary notes about Vargas that might have led to Brauchli’s decision. He left behind a reputation in The Post’s newsroom for being tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless self-promoter whom many colleagues didn’t trust. Editors said that he needed direction, coaching and constant watching.

It’s also disturbing that Vargas has formed a nonprofit group to advocate for immigration reform. He has crossed the line from journalist to advocate.

There is so much to parse here, but for now, I’ll leave the discussion to you readers. Some things I’m wondering:

1. Are we still trying to hold on to the tattered notion of “objectivity” – or did Vargas usher in a whole new take on radical transparency?
2. Seriously, a relentless self-promoter? Have you met any journalists in DC? Everyone, this writer-advocate-sometimes-journo included, is guilty of that. Or is it only cool when the approved new members of the boys club do it?
3. Considering our changing global realities, shouldn’t America be grateful cultivating talent like Vargas? Why do we want to force out a person who I would consider to be a true patriot?
4. ICE may be under directives to leave undocumented workers like Vargas alone, for now – but how will that change in 2012?

(Image Credit: Business Insider)

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  • JournoAdjunctBureau

    I really, really wanted to get behind this guy, but his playing fast and furious with journalistic ethics got under my skin. He should have known to step away completely from covering topics of illegal immigration; that’s Journalism 101.

    Instead, it seems like he wanted his cake and to eat it, too… To have his dream job as a journalist, and his dream career, and play around ethics rules that are supposed to apply to any ethical journalist – you don’t cover stories that you are directly involved in, or have a direct stake in, WITHOUT DISCLOSING THAT TO YOUR READERS. Or, you don’t cover the story. Period.

    Self-determining that you are un-biased enough to be impartial on stories that affect you directly isn’t kosher for me. I expect more from reporters.

    When I look back over the pieces he has written through the years, with so many of them now admittedly deeply tied to his status as an illegal immigrant, and there he was covering them in the midst without any kind of disclosure to readers, I just see a liar.

    I DO feel horrible for the quiet torment he had to live with for so long, and for his anguish, and I’m glad he now feels able to freely express his immigration status. But I also feel like he needs to apologize for steamrolling over ethics so often every time he covered and wrote about immigration stories.

  • Guest

    As a person who knows has faced all of the challenges of being a “documented non-immigrant”, I remain conflicted on the issue of “undocumented/illegal” immigrants.  I have stood in long lines at US Embassies to “beg” for visas, faced often ridiculous screenings at the borders and even got put out of my employers building when my work visa papers did not get processed in time for my first day of work. Humiliating? You have no idea. 

    I don’t fully agree with some of the arguments of undocumented immigrants but Vargas and the many like him prove that the issue is not black and white and is certainly much, MUCH more complicated than most of us can imagine. 

    I teared up when I read the article last week. I certainly can empathize with his situation and I find him very brave for coming forward.  I wish him the best and hope that there is a way to put him on the path to documented US citizenship.


  • Slush

    #1 – Short answer is yes we are still clinging to an old fashioned understanding of objectivity, depending on who “we” is.  But Vargas pointed out in his article that he had always avoided reporting on immigration cases as much as he could, I guess because it was so personal.
    #2. – Haha.  Exactly.  And Vargas also talked about how much he needed to prove himself constantly, to stave off the fear and try to somehow build up a case forhimself where he was legalized.

    @7e82d7abbfd9651e423cc5bd1b39e9ae:disqus  – “I’d expect there to be a fairly direct relationship between difficulties faced by illegal immigrants and the extent of illegal immigration.”  
    Actually you are mistaken there.  A bit of a relationship, sure, but hardly a direct one.  It’s quite well established that the correlation to our economy is much stronger.  We have a ton of jobs to offer immigrants, and most of them would very much prefer to come legally on a visa, if they possibly could.  But there aren’t anywhere near as many visas as there are jobs.  Even in this economy. And our system is so backlogged that it takes decades to immigrate legally.  
    Meanwhile, hundreds of people die every year trying to cross the desert in Arizona to come work in this country.  If dying of dehydration in the desert doesn’t deter people, how does Homeland Security think that it can create a deterrent that will work better?  

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  • Rachel Goldfarb

    Regarding #1, I’m confused as to why the Post’s Ombudsman thinks it’s problematic that Vargas has shifted from journalist to activist on this issue. As a known activist, it’s true that editors might not want to work with Vargas on news stories related to immigration issues, but his work on immigration could still be published as opinion pieces. And why should known bias on a single issue influence our perception of a reporter when he or she deals with other issues?

    • Jadey

      Vargas also specifically mentions in his piece that he tried to avoid covering immigration stories as much as possible, so he clearly made an attempt to compensate for his bias and keep his activism and journalism somewhat partitioned. (Although personally I’m way more a fan of the radical transparency approach!)

  • Dennis

    If there were no barriers to immigration the US and most developed nations would receive an influx of people too great for their societies’ infrastructure to support. For that reason without totally open borders it is necessary to make illegal immigration difficult and unpleasant to a greater or lesser extent. Otherwise it’s not going to dissuade people from doing it.

    So I’m curious about what most advocates for changes in immigration policy want, to reduce the difficulties faced by illegal immigrants or to eliminate them. I’d expect there to be a fairly direct relationship between difficulties faced by illegal immigrants and the extent of illegal immigration.

  • Anonymous

    re: ?#4 … we don’t need to wait to 2012 to worry about this because the ICE directives to focus on immigrants who pose a clear risk to society are absolutely meaningless. The reality is that the current Administration has detained and deported a record number of immigrants (that’s right, more than the Bush Administration) and people in the immigrant community know that the many, many people being detained for years or deported are caught up because of their immigration status, NOT because they pose any threat to national security. 
    Just look back to the last big story on immigration — the LATimes profile on the Guzman Family — to see the toll that current immigration detention policies are having. So even if Vargas might not face immediate deportation, he certainly has reason to fear years of detention. 
    And the only people who would benefit from the current system (regardless of the official policies of ICE) are the private, for-profit prisons that are backing all of the state bills to spread AZ-style racial profiling and immigrant crack-down bills.