Journalist longs to be legal in the country he loves

Posted: February 01, 2012

JOSE ANTONIO Vargas, a former Daily News intern and Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winner, was on a New York subway last summer when a Hispanic woman yelled out to him: "El Chino!"

"She told me she also doesn't have papers," said Vargas, who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a 4,600-word article in June in the New York Times Magazine.

And at a Starbucks near his Greenwich Village apartment, a young white girl also recognized him, saying: "You're the Asian guy on Colbert!"

(Vargas, by the way, isn't Chinese; he's Filipino.)

Since his Times piece, Vargas has been interviewed on ABC's "Nightline," CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, by Stephen Colbert and in numerous print and Web outlets.

He realizes that, at any moment, he can be arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and deported back to the Philippines.

"I am prepared for that," he said as we sat last month on red-leather seats inside his one-bedroom New York apartment tucked inside a tan-brick building above a shoe store.

"Yeah, I'm fearful just like any undocumented person is fearful," he said. "I've always been looking over my shoulder. I've always had this nagging feeling that someone could pick me up."

No one from ICE has contacted him, though.

Luis Martinez, ICE spokesman in the New York field office, did not recognize Vargas' name or his story when asked by the Daily News. He said he could not discuss an individual case because of the agency's privacy policy.

Ross Feinstein, an ICE spokesman in Washington, said the agency focuses its enforcement efforts on people who present the most significant threats to public safety, including "those convicted of crimes" and "egregious immigration-law violators."

Vargas, who does not fall into those categories, said: "In some ways, I think what I've basically done is kind of just dared the entire system. I don't think you could have been more public; it's as public as one could get."

Not just about me

Vargas was in Florida this week, ahead of the state's critical primary. On Monday night, he spoke to an audience of more than 120 at the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Service in Gainesville about his immigration story and about the country's record deportation levels under President Obama.

He also touched on the Republican presidential candidates' race, commenting on a statement made by Mitt Romney, who suggested that illegal immigrants who couldn't find work under his plan would "self-deport."

"I am not self-deporting myself," Vargas told the university audience, according to the Gainesville Sun. "Mitt Romney would have to deport me himself if he wanted to."

Vargas is hoping that his coming out in such a public way and that a new organization he co-founded, Define American (www.defineamerican.com), will propel others - especially other illegal immigrants and legal residents who support them - to share their stories in public.

He wants to get people talking, discussing, debating immigration issues on a deeper, more human level.

"There's a lot of immigration groups; there's a lot of activism that's happening and advocacy that's happening," he said. "What role do I play in that?"

"I'm just one story. . . . Define American is really important in making sure that we provide a platform where [all] people can tell their stories."

He realizes that legislation such as the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to legal residency for young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and who attend college or serve in the military, is unlikely to pass Congress this presidential election year.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act was introduced 10 years ago by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. A later version of it passed the U.S. House in December 2010, but was blocked in the Senate.

Obama supports the DREAM Act, alluding to it in his State of the Union address last week, urging Congress to act to "stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away."

Path to prominence

Vargas was 12 in 1993, when his mother put him on a plane in their native Philippines, telling him to go with an "uncle" to Mountain View, Calif., about 45 minutes south of San Francisco, where her parents lived. It was the last time he's seen his mother, who hasn't been able to get even a tourist visa to visit him.

He began living with his grandparents, naturalized U.S. citizens. It wasn't until he was 16 when he rode his bike to a Department of Motor Vehicles office to get a driver's permit when he learned that his green card was fake and he was not in this country legally. "Don't come back here again," the nice woman with curly hair and glasses told him.

Stunned, Vargas confronted his grandfather, who then told him that he had bought the card and other fake documents for him.

"I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American," Vargas wrote in his Times article. "I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship."

Vargas, who turns 31 on Friday, has already attained what most journalists can only dream of doing. During his five years at the Washington Post, he was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for the paper's coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings; in 2008, he covered the presidential campaign.

After he left the Post in July 2009, he worked at the Huffington Post website in New York for a year. In September 2010, he published a profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker.

Memories of his achievements are framed on an exposed-brick wall in his living room. There's a Dec. 6, 2005, letter from the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and a Christmas card from Florence Henderson of "Brady Bunch" fame. And there's a Post section cover of a series Vargas wrote on HIV/AIDS that inspired the documentary "The Other City," which he wrote and co-produced.

What would you do?

In 2010, Vargas kept abreast of news about four undocumented students who marched from Miami to Washington in a four-month "Trail of Dreams" to bring attention to the DREAM Act.

They propelled him to tell his story.

"I felt kind of cowardly while all these kids were coming out and risking their lives, and here I am in my comfortable apartment in New York," he said. "I couldn't just stay silent."

Vargas was 18 and a student at Mountain View High School when he came out publicly about something else: being gay.

Coming out about being undocumented was different, he says. "This, I was 30 years old," he remarks, before veering off to say he was sorry he had lied to his former friends and employers about his immigration status.

"I wanted to keep working," he explains. "I made a choice."

He poses a thoughtful question to anyone, if that person's life had been flipped with his: "What would you have done" if you found out at 16 that you were here illegally? "Would you have put yourself on the plane to the Philippines?"

Vargas detailed to the Times how he was able to land jobs. He and his grandfather, now deceased, used a fake Filipino passport to apply for a Social Security card for him, and then covered the part on it that said he needed "INS authorization" to work. They made copies of the covered-up card at Kinko's.

If employers asked to see his Social Security card, he would show them the photocopied version.

He got the Daily News 2001 summer internship through Knight Ridder, which then owned the paper. He recalls giving his Social Security number, but doesn't remember if he had to fill out any forms.

Debi Licklider, a Daily News editor who oversees the internship program, calls Vargas "possibly the best intern" in the paper's history.

Vargas found Philadelphia fascinating. Coming from the diverse San Francisco Bay Area, he found Philly to be "such a black-and-white kind of town." He didn't need to drive for the Daily News job, and got around by public transportation, taxi and hitchhiking.

But he did need a driver's license for a Post internship he got two summers later. He was able to get one in Portland, Ore., that expired last year. He then got a license in Washington state, but it was revoked after his Times piece ran.

To Vargas' surprise, the first person who emailed him after news of his license revocation broke was Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for "The Social Network," the film about Facebook's Zuckerberg.

"He basically said, 'If you need the car service, just let me know,' " says Vargas, who has not taken Sorkin up on the offer, but did meet him for a drink.

Zuckerberg also contacted him after his Times piece, "wishing me luck," Vargas said. How? Through Facebook, of course.

Vargas said he's able to continue living in his apartment through his savings. And, yes, he does pay taxes. He doesn't get paid through Define American.

He co-founded the nonpartisan group with three friends: Jehmu Greene, who headed Rock the Vote in the early 2000s and is a U.S.-born daughter of Liberian immigrants; Jake Brewer, "who is like the white, straight brother from Tennessee I never thought I would have," Vargas writes in an email; and Alicia Menendez, daughter of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and a senior adviser at NDN, a Washington think tank and advocacy group.

Their goal is to get people to talk openly about immigration.

That includes, Vargas said, seeing how hurtful the term "illegal immigrant" can be to a child in school who discovers that he or she is here illegally.

And seeing that undocumented immigrants are "not taking away a slice of your pie; we're making the pie bigger," he says.

He reflected about his experiences over the past months: "This is more than me being a journalist. This is my life . . . I'm just one person. . . . There's like 11 million [undocumented] people like me who are in the exact same situation."

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