Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his coverage of the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech, announced today that he is an undocumented immigrant. In a piece for the New York Times, he recounts going to get a learner’s permit at the age of 16, only to be told that his green card was fake. He had been sent to the United States from his birthplace, the Philippines, at the age of 12 to live with his grandparents. They were naturalized citizens, but his grandfather had to purchase fake documentation for Vargas. For all his life, Vargas explains, he has had to rely on a “a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.”
Throughout his adult life, Vargas admits to having committed a number of fraud-related crimes in order to obtain the documentation he needed to keep working in the United States, writing false information on employment forms and using an invalid Social Security card. All of this, he writes, was in service of “living the American dream.” But now, he says he’s sick of pretending.
“I’m done running,” he writes. “I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.”
I highly encourage you to read the entire piece, which tells the complicated saga of Vargas’ successful career as a journalist, and the web of false forms and information that accompanied every move he made. Vargas is also adding his voice to the chorus of people clamoring for the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay in the country as long as they enroll in college or join the military. The bill was reintroduced to the Senate in May.
“We don’t just mow your lawns and babysit your kids and serve you tacos,” said Vargas. “We do that. We do a really good job doing that, but we do other things, and we are a part of this society. And I think that everyone deserves dignity.”
The question, of course, is whether Vargas will be deported – and more complicated still, whether he should be. Some are raising questions about whether Vargas’ repeated deceptions count as a violation of journalistic ethics. And as Nick Baumann points out on the Mother Jones blog, although it’s one thing to sympathize with Vargas, many foreign journalists have also “paid thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and waded through miles of red tape and seemingly senseless regulations” to stay and work in the United States – and they may not be so sympathetic.
Still, it seems clear that like the many other undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, Vargas has made a place for himself in the United States, and has every right to consider himself an American. Vargas, though, is something of a different case, since while he is foreign-born, he lived as an American for much of his youth. And while he did deceive his employers and colleagues, it seems unlikely that Vargas’ immigration status affected his ability to be a good reporter.
The tide may be changing for people like Vargas, though, even if it’s just a little. A new memo from John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, encourages immigration agents to consider how long an undocumented immigrant has been in the U.S., whether they were brought as a child, and if they are enrolled in school or the military. While this could just be a PR move, it also could mean that the government is inching toward fairer treatment toward undocumented immigrants who, like Vargas, have made themselves an integral part of the fabric of American life.
Photo from pamhule’s Flickr photostream.