The Illegal Among Us: A Journalist Outs Himself

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I first met Jose Antonio Vargas on a dirt road in Iowa. We were both lost, in separate rental cars, trying to find our way to a Mike Huckabee pheasant shooting event. He had been sent out in the frozen corn fields over the Christmas holiday by the Washington Post. I knew him already from his clips. He was one of the most able and lyrical writers working on the 2008 campaign. The Post had him covering the intersection of politics and technology. It always seemed to me that the Post had made a mistake. His editors should have had him doing candidate profiles.

As the years passed, my suspicions were confirmed. He shared a Pulitzer for his work at the Post, reported a stunning series on AIDS patients in DC, got recruited to New York by Arianna Huffington, and wrote a great profile of Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker.  Today, in the New York Times and on ABC News, he has gone public with a secret: All of these accomplishments were technical violations of the law. Vargas, all along, was an undocumented immigrant, working illegally after being sent to the country by his mother at the age of 12.

This Sunday, the Times will publish a first-person account of his story. An excerpt:

One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. “This is fake,” she whispered. “Don’t come back here again.”

Confused and scared, I pedaled home and confronted Lolo. I remember him sitting in the garage, cutting coupons. I dropped my bike and ran over to him, showing him the green card. “Peke ba ito?” I asked in Tagalog. (“Is this fake?”) My grandparents were naturalized American citizens — he worked as a security guard, she as a food server — and they had begun supporting my mother and me financially when I was 3, after my father’s wandering eye and inability to properly provide for us led to my parents’ separation. Lolo was a proud man, and I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me. “Don’t show it to other people,” he warned.

Vargas has decided to add his personal story to a political cause, the passage of the DREAM ACT, an unusual position for a professional journalist in our current age. He has launched a website, DefineAmerican.com, as his vehicle. “You can call me whatever you want to call me, but I am an American,” he tells ABC News. “No one can take that away from me. No, no one can.”

But then, what made Vargas’ work at the Post so good was that it drew heavily on traditions of journalism that rarely make their way into broadsheets or network broadcasts. His was a far more literary undertaking, in the tradition of the greatest American writers of fact, people like Joan Didion and James Baldwin. So the first thing I thought of when I saw the Vargas announcement this morning was a passage from Baldwin, which I know Vargas has read many times.

I don’t like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
 I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

The Baldwin tradition is the one Vargas has chosen. And now that the accident of birth has again become a great American political controversy, I eagerly await whatever he writes next.

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