Prize-winning reporter reveals he is undocumented

Over the past 14 years, Jose Antonio Vargas, 30, originally from the Philippines, has pursued his education and built a career as a journalist working for some of the nation’s most prestigious news outlets. As a Washington Post reporter, he shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 after covering the deadly Virginia Tech shootings.

“On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream,” wrote Vargas in a revealing story for the New York Times Magazine.

“But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living in 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 means relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.”

“There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.,” he wrote. “We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one if its own.”

In the article, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” Vargas says, “I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.”

He recalls coming to the U.S. at age 12 in 1993 to live with his grandparents in California.

His grandparents emigrated legally to the U.S. in 1984 from Zambales, Philippines, a province of rice fields and bamboo houses. His grandfather worked as a security guard and his grandmother as a food server. They became naturalized citizens. Vargas notes his mother wanted to give him a better life, so she sent him to live with them in America. It’s been almost 18 years since Vargas has seen his mother.

When Vargas turned 16, he went to his nearby DMV office to get his driver’s permit. The clerk said his green card was false and told him not to come back. Vargas confronted his grandfather and learned he was undocumented.

Over the years, Vargas graduated high school, won a scholarship to attend college and began working as an aspiring journalist. He used false information, including a false Social Security card, and was even issued a drivers license in 2003.

“I convinced myself all would be O.K. if I lived up to the qualities of a ‘citizen’: hard work, self-reliance, love of my country,” writes Vargas.

“The deceit never got easier. The more I did it, the more I felt like an imposter, the more guilt I carried – and the more I worried that I would get caught. But I kept doing it. I needed to live and survive on my own, and I decided this was the way.”

He began working for The San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News while in college, before landing a fulltime job with the Washington Post. He joined the Huffington Post in 2009.

Vargas said coming out about his sexual orientation seemed less daunting than coming out about his legal status.

But Vargas said it was time to come forward about his story, including reaching out to his former bosses and employers to apologize. It was the courage of young undocumented students risking deportation while advocating for the DREAM Act that inspired him.

Rory O’Connor, a colleague of Vargas, writes in the Huffington Post that Vargas is an American hero.

“[He] is incredibly brave to risk everything he has accomplished in this country in order to tell the truth and to shine yet another, but still much-needed, light on the pressing need for comprehensive immigration reform in this country. He, and millions like him, have much to contribute to America – and without people like them, our country will be far poorer,” writes O’Connor.

He adds, “If there isn’t room in the U.S. for people like Jose Antonio – the precise type of people who made this country great – I despair for our collective future. I urge you to read his inspiring story, and then to take action to ensure that Jose Antonio – and the many others like him – aren’t forced to choose between hiding in the shadows or risking it all by telling the truth.”


Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.