Following his startling personal story in The New York Times magazine, Mountain View's Pulitzer Prize-winner Jose Antonio Vargas has apparently pulled off the impossible over the last few weeks, starting a fresh conversation on radio and television about immigration in the U.S.
Vargas' story has now been widely told. Vargas was brought from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the U.S. by a coyote posing as his uncle at age 13, and he has not seen his mother since. He realized his situation only when his fake green card was rejected when he tried to get a driver's license in high school. He has admitted to using fake documents to obtain jobs at the country's top newspapers.
Vargas met with the Voice on Monday before his sold-out talk at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, and discussed what has happened over the last few weeks.
A former Mountain View High School student and Voice intern, Vargas, has put his face on the nation's immigration conversation in appearances on CNN, Fox News, NPR and Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show. He was scheduled to appear on the Colbert Report on Thursday, after the Voice went to press.
Everything was going well for Vargas before he revealed his immigration status. He had recently interviewed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker and had written 600 articles for the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, including one about the Virginia Tech massacre for which he shared a Pulitzer.
"All you can really do is live as honestly as you can," Vargas said. "That's what I'm doing. That's what's in it for me. Walking away from The New York Times building on Eighth Avenue, knowing the article was closed, I just started skipping around. People probably thought I was nuts. I can't even describe to you the feeling of liberation."
"I have so internalized all of this and I have, like, blocked it in the corner of my mind," Vargas said. "Once I unlocked it in my head, it's almost as if I've been getting to know myself in a completely different way. I had gotten lost in telling other people's stories; it's all I've ever done."
Vargas has received no indication from authorities about whether he may be deported soon, but he has a team of volunteer lawyers who are "ready for anything and everything that could happen. I'm not driving anymore. I can't be jaywalking. I just have to be careful."
A difficult situation
By the time he spoke with a lawyer, it was too late. "I checked boxes I wasn't supposed to check," on employment applications, Vargas said, explaining why he would have difficulty applying for citizenship in the U.S. It was recommended that he move back to the Philippines for 10 years before coming back to apply again. His mentors advised against that, including former Mountain View High School superintendent Rich Fisher, who told him "keep going," Vargas recalls. "If he would have said, 'leave,' I would have done it."
Similarly, Peter Pearl, an editor at the Washington Post who knew about his situation, decided to support Vargas rather than report him. "If he would have told me 'We have to report you now,' I would have said, 'Okay,'" Vargas said. "I am really indebted to these American citizens who decided to help me out."
Vargas said last year he briefly considered quietly moving to Canada to obtain citizenship there. Instead, he invited friends and family from around the country to an Indian restaurant in San Francisco for his 30th birthday party, where it was made clear that his next big move might get him deported.
"Everybody was worried," Vargas said. "But I got to a place in my head where I couldn't not do it."
His grandmother, who raised him in Mountain View with his now deceased grandfather, may be having the hardest time with it. "She's really nervous," Vargas said. "Its a lot of attention I'm sure she doesn't want. I call everyday just to check in."
Vargas saw that he was in a position to help many others like him, immigrants brought here as kids who cannot have much of a life in the U.S. Without citizenship. He's heard from many of them in the last three weeks, including one with a law degree who has been busing tables for four years. "My heart just breaks for them," Vargas said. The United States is "all about dreaming big, (and) you are basically telling people, 'Oops, sorry, you can't.'"
Addressing his opponents
Ultimately, Vargas does not have a policy recommendation, just a strong belief that the conversation on immigration needs to be "reframed" and "elevated."
As journalists, "we have to talk to people who don't agree with us," Vargas said. "I'm actually looking forward to having a civil dialogue with people who think that I should just be deported or think of me as a threat. Why do they use that word, illegal?
What about me as a human being is illegal? I would not have done what I have done if I thought I would just be preaching to the choir. I did not put myself in my situation just so I could get a round of applause from people who already believe what I believe."
"Do i believe in securing the border? Of course I do," Vargas said. "Do I believe in enforcement? Of course I do. But we all know system is broken. We just don't have the political capital or will to make it a priority. Meanwhile millions are living in a shadow economy of sorts."
Vargas said he personally wrestled with the question of whether or not he has taken jobs away from American citizens. When he won his internship at the Washington Post, he called one of his mentors, former Mountain View High School principal Pat Hyland, and said, "Did I take somebody else's job?"
"Pat actually laughed at me," Vargas said. "She said, 'Stop thinking that way, you earned this.'"
"I got to where I got through hard work and merit," Vargas said. People think "my existence threatens your existence, when really it doesn't."
Vargas aims to break the stereotypes of undocumented immigrants as those who use social services without paying taxes, are only from Mexico and do not care to learn English or assimilate into American culture.
"I wanted to basically say, 'we are not who you think we are," Vargas said. Even some of his own colleagues and friends were shocked to learn of his status. "What do you mean? You've been to the White House!" was one reaction Vargas recalls.
At the same time, Vargas worries about embarrassing the Filipino community, including his family. Filipinos are very "under the radar. It is a very assimilated culture," Vargas said. "Having a Filipino American say he is undocumented isn't the greatest piece of news to Filipinos."
Vargas said he formed his non-profit, Define American, while planning to reveal his story in order to maximize the impact he could have in the country's debate on immigration. He said he doesn't expect legislators to pass immigration reform anytime soon, but he will be making sure it is discussed in the next presidential race, in which he will not be a reporter, but someone raising the issues.