- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
It isn’t often that an undocumented immigrant in the United States outs himself to the world, risking the wrath of the justice system. And rarer too is it for that person to be an award-winning journalist.
So Jose Antonio Vargas’s compelling essay in the New York Times Magazine today is worth noting. The former Washington Post reporter shared a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.
When he was 12 and living in the Philippines, his mother put him on an airplane to go live with his grandparents in California, he writes. He didn’t realize he was living in the United States illegally until he tried to get a driver’s license when he turned 16. The DMV told him his documents were fake.
I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.
I’ve tried. Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.
But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living 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 has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.
What’s going to happen to Vargas now that he’s made his story public? The Atlantic spoke to an immigration lawyer who said he could be detained and put through deportation procedures, but the very public nature of his revelation might actually work in his favor.
"He’s outspoken in The New York Times, he’s drawn considerable attention to his story. It’s very difficult for the immigration machinery to operate in front of someone that’s that public," David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the Atlantic.
The more immediate ramifications could be on his career. Vargas — who has also written for the Huffington Post and the New Yorker — might have trouble getting publications to pay him, now that he has outed himself as illegal.
"You can’t hire an independent contractor knowing he’s undocumented," Leopold told the Atlantic.