Pulitzer Prize-Winning Reporter Outs Himself as Illegal Immigrant, Details Underground Network That Supported Him

New York Times
"We're not always who you think we are," Vargas writes of illegal immigrants. "Some pick your strawberries...[others] write news articles you might read."

​An illegal immigrant on the Washington Post reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 has outed himself in a feature for the New York Times magazine.

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Filipino who was smuggled into the United States using forged documents when he was 12. He has been living and working illegally since, in hopes of someday earning legal status.

Vargas grew up in San Francisco, only leaving when he set out on his reporting odyssey.

"I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship," Vargas explains of his motivation in life. "I felt I could earn it."

As he grew older, Vargas came to realize the reality facing most illegal immigrants -- there is no way to earn it. He consulted immigration attorneys who advised Vargas that he had no options except for leaving the country and reapplying to return in ten years.

That, he says, was unacceptable to him, so he has forged a Social Security card and worked to become a staff writer at the Post, publishing articles in the New Yorker and winning a Pulitzer.

His lack of status, he writes, has meant "relying on [an] underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me," and he goes into remarkable detail to explain the logistics of his success.

Vargas, for instance, recounts his smuggling in-depth, explaining that his family hired a "coyote," or human smuggler, to sit with him on an airplane and show a forged passport to customs officials at the airport.

His grandfather then bought Vargas a fake Filipino passport and used it to obtain a Social Security number and card. The card looked like any other except for a statement underneath the numbers: "Valid for work only with [Immigration and Naturalization Services] authorization."

The family then went to Kinko's, covered the text, and photocopied it, and he has used that card to take jobs across the country.

When the Washington Post accepted him for an internship, Vargas was required to have a driver's license -- so he looked up the requirements in various states, saw Oregon was the most likely to grant him a license, and drove out there. Family friends provided him with their address as a fake "proof of residency" in Oregon, which he used to obtain his license.

Vargas says lying and breaking the law was something he did with much guilt.

"This deceit never got easier," he writes. "The more I did it, the more I felt like an impostor, the more guilt I carried -- and the more I worried that I would get caught. But I kept doing it. I needed to live and survive on my own, and I decided this was the way."

Washington Post editor Peter Perl, at least, knew about his status, and decided to help him cover it up. Perl told Vargas they would one day inform Don Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Company, and Leonard Downie Jr., then-Executive Editor, together, but they never did.

He has been inspired to tell his story, he writes, because of the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation meant to legalize illegal immigrants who came here as minors through no choice of their own and have graduated from college or join the military.

His career as a reporter is over now, and he has created a group called Define American to "change the conversation on immigration reform."

It is unclear what consequences Vargas will face as a result of his confessions.

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Gregory Pratt
Contact: Gregory Pratt