Editor’s Note: Shortly after the publication of his tell-all essay in the New York Times revealing his undocumented status since age 12, Filipino-American journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner, sat down for one-on-one interviews with television anchor Odette Keeley and editor Anthony Advincula, both of New America Media.
Vargas explained that around 2002, a lawyer advised him that his only legal option was to return to the Philippines and be barred from returning to the United States for 10 years. Then he could seek reentry afterwards. This immigration policy would have taken Vargas, who came of age in the United States with only hazy memories of the Philippines, to a homeland he barely knows.
Now, his counsel, led by the Filipino American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is exploring all options to legalize his stay in America, including the offered assistance of the Philippine government via its embassy.
Who is Undocumented? Filipino American Journalist Shatters Stereotypes
NEW YORK — When he was growing up in the Philippines, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ early ideas of America were formed by the remittances and goods his grandparents sent from California. “My Lolo [Grandpa] and Lola [Grandma] were our support-system,” he said.
Flying to America
When he was just a boy of 12 and at a Manila airport, finally leaving for the United States, he was unaware of the abstract legal issue of immigration status.
In the New York Times Magazine article, Vargas wrote how a “coyote”—hired by his family but who he thought was an uncle — smuggled him into the United States.
Years passed before Vargas knew he wasn’t in this country legally. By then the smart and ambitious youth had become firmly American. Vargas says his memories of his native land are hazy. “I was just 12 when I left,” he said.
Pursuing his dream of becoming a journalist in his early 20s, Vargas obtained a fake green card and falsely claimed he was a U.S. citizen. Along the way, editors at the San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Daily News and Washington Post helped the talented young reporter work his way up the newsroom career ladder. In 2008, he earned a Pulitzer Prize while at the Washington Post for his coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Now that he has come out as being undocumented—although he thought about the risk of being arrested or deported — Companies are unlikely to hire him, despite his exemplary career.
“I’ve been living off my savings, which will be depleted pretty soon,” he said. “But, thankfully, there have been some donors who have been helping out for the Define American campaign.”
He is also currently working on a documentary film about the DREAM-ers, those who were brought into the country as minors with no legal papers. Last Tuesday, Vargas was in the nation’s capital to join the DREAM-ers at the first-ever Senate hearing on the DREAM Act.
Many media outlets have been skeptical about the purpose of his revelations in the New York Times article, but he insists he did not write the piece for selfish reasons.
Rather than seek personal notoriety, he said, he intended to show that many people stereotyped as “illegals” come from all walks of American life and are contributing their skills and taxes to this country.
Vargas emphasized that he consulted immigration lawyers before coming forward. A team of Filipino-American immigration lawyers is representing him pro bono. As of Thursday, officials from ICE have not contacted Vargas.
Since he declared his immigration status, Vargas said he has been wondering whether others like him will come forward, people who have been successful, despite having no legal documents to stay in the United States.
If more undocumented people did so, Vargas added, it would strengthen the campaign for a comprehensive immigration reform.
He said his coming-out experience has been so far “empowering, but taxing at the same time.” It has made him reflect on himself and the things that he needs to do.
Before Vargas became a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for major news outlets, he began his journalism career freelancing for YO! — Youth Outlook — the monthly youth magazine of Pacific News Service (PNS, the parent organization of New America Media).
“I did not know Jose’s status when he came to us at YO! He was a high school senior and it never came up,” e-mailed editor, Teresa Moore, now an associate professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco.
Vargas said his experience at YO! validated his belief in the “crucial role of ethnic media” as well as the importance of having minority journalists in newsrooms.
“If we’re moving to a minority-majority in this country, then a lot of these journalists of color from all backgrounds should be a part of newsrooms, but they are not,” he said.
“This is why ethnic media have to do the job that the mainstream media are not doing.”
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