Jose Antonio Vargas: On Coming Out As An 'Undocumented' Immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, recently revealed he has been living in the U.S. illegally since he was 12. "This country is not going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants," he says. "What are we supposed to do with them?"

Coming Out As An 'Undocumented' Immigrant

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Last month, my guest made a confession where everyone could see: In the New York Times Magazine. In his article, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas revealed that he is an undocumented immigrant. This was a big surprise, since he's hardly lived his life in the shadows.

He shared a Pulitzer Prize when he was a reporter for the Washington Post, and went on to write for the Huffington Post and to profile Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker.

His mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the U.S. when he was 12, in 1993, and they had led him to believe he was a legitimate U.S. resident. But when he was 16, he stumbled on the truth: His green card was fake, and his family had lied to him.

When he found that out, he kept it secret. He illegally obtained a driver's license. He lied about his status on some job application forms.

We're going to talk about why he decided to go public and what the consequences might be. Vargas has started a new activist group called Define American, with a mission of changing the conversation about immigration.

Jose Antonio Vargas, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS (Journalist): Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: So have you heard from any immigration authorities since you revealed that you are undocumented?

Mr. VARGAS: No, no. I have not. My lawyers and I have not heard from anybody. We're just kind of waiting. You know, when I decided to do this, I had to get myself into a place where I just have to be prepared for anything and everything. So that's kind of where I'm at.

GROSS: So I guess you got your lawyers before you decided to come out as undocumented, yeah.

Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, well, I treated it like a big story that I was working on, and so I just interviewed and talked to a lot of people. And, I mean, mind you, if the lawyers had it their way, I would not have written what I wrote in the first place, so that actually, it was really interesting. You know, 30 minutes before the magazine was going to press, I was on the phone with a lawyer, with one of the lawyers who had been advising me, actually saying, you know, take that word out.

And I wasn't going to do that, just because I really wanted to write the piece in such a way that, you know, I'm just one person who had to go through what I had to go through, and a lot of people are going through the exact same thing.

GROSS: So how old are you now?

Mr. VARGAS: I'm 30. I turned 30 in February.

GROSS: So why did you decide to come out as undocumented now? Did something change in your life? Was there a last straw? Was there a turning point?

Mr. VARGAS: I mean, last year, when I got the driver's license in Oregon, in 2003, it expired. The license lasted me for eight full years. It expired on my 30th birthday, which was February of this year, February 3rd of this year.

So that was always kind of a deadline in my head, like okay, I had eight years. Maybe the laws are going to be fixed by then, and that Washington is going to come up with a solution in terms of, you know, this country's immigration problem.

GROSS: Let me just stop you here. Now, driver's license is important, not only because it allows you to drive, but because it's your ID.

Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, it's - I needed that license to not just drive, but to get around this country. And that was my piece - you know, I had never - I didn't have a passport, never tried to get one. I never voted. The irony, of course, is I spent two years traveling for the Washington Post covering the presidential campaign, and I couldn't vote in the race that I was covering.

And back to your point about why the time now, of course, having that eight-year deadline in my head and the fact that it was approaching, and last year for me was kind of the peak of my career. You know, like, I had profiled Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, for the New Yorker. Everybody wanted to talk to him, and I landed the interview.

I had a film that was based on stories that I did for the Washington Post turned into a documentary that was, you know, a director and a producer wanted to turn into a documentary. And the entire time that I was kind of experiencing this career high, all I kept thinking in my head was: This license is going to expire. What am I going to do?

And I think I started reading and watching a lot of the stories, a lot of the DREAM Act activists. You know, I remember particularly reading about, you know, four students from Florida who walked from Florida to Washington, D.C., 1,500 miles, to lobby for the DREAM Act.

And I'm sitting in my apartment in Manhattan thinking: I was in their shoes just seven years ago. I had to do something. And the final straw was on December 18th. That's when the DREAM Act failed in the Senate. I said to myself - I took a long walk to the Brooklyn Bridge and back, listened to a lot of Beyonce, a lot of Joni Mitchell and a lot of Rachmaninoff. And somehow, I just went home, and I said: Okay, this is what I'm going to do.

So the story was published online on June 22nd. Apparently, it was the most-shared article on Google for like an entire week, and it just got around. You know, undocumented immigrant, which is not exactly a sexy phrase, was a trending topic on Twitter.

We had accomplished the goal of making sure that people think about immigration in a different way. And now it's making sure that it's sustain - you know, again, that this is not just about my story. This is about stories of countless - you know, not just, of course, young Americans, but undocumented immigrants in this country and what we have to do to survive.

GROSS: So even though your story, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," was Googled a lot and was - not everybody has heard the story. So let's talk a little about what happened to you.

In 1993, when you were 12, your mother sent you from the Philippines to the United States to live with your grandparents, who were here legally from the Philippines.

Mr. VARGAS: Yes, both were legal. Yeah.

GROSS: What did she tell you about why she was sending you to the U.S.?

Mr. VARGAS: You know, being in the Philippines, it was always somehow communicated to me when I was young that my future was in America. I just never knew when it was going to come or what that even meant. I mean, all I knew was that I woke up one morning, and my suitcase was packed and there was a cab outside, and there I am at the airport, and my mom is saying goodbye. And...

GROSS: Why didn't she come with you?

Mr. VARGAS: Well, at that point, that wasn't really explained to me. But basically, when I got to the airport, I was introduced to a man who they, you know, told me was my uncle. I had never met this man. And he was the one that actually escorted me on the plane. And then I would find out later on, when I discovered - you know, when I was 16, that I was undocumented, that he was actually a coyote that my grandfather had paid $4,500 to.

You know, my grandfather was a security guard. He probably made no more than $9 an hour his entire life. And they paid this coyote to get me here. And at that point, my mother wanted to get here, getting a visa, but she was denied three times. So my mother - I haven't seen my mother since I was 12, actually since I left that morning in the airport.

But I didn't find out - you know, I got to America when I was 12, and then four years after that, you know, like every 16-year-old, I wanted to get my driver's permit. So I didn't tell my grandparents. I just took my bike, and I went to the DMV and I sat there, and the woman called me into the booth.

And I show her my green card, which is kind of proof of residency. I showed it to her, and I remember she looked at it, this woman, she flipped it around, and she, like, lowered her voice and looked at me and said this is fake. Don't come back here again.

And I remember riding my bike home, thinking - I was angry. I was confused. I thought maybe she was lying. But why would she lie? So then I confronted my grandfather, you know, when I got home. He was in the garage, actually, cutting coupons. And I confronted him, and he confirmed it. And that was when - you know, in many ways, that was kind of the beginning of my reporting career, I guess.

Like, I was just really curious, you know, how - how could this have happened, and how come no one told me? And at that point, I had been in America for four years. I loved this country. And I did not want to have the jobs that my grandfather wanted me to have. He just thought, you know, stay under the radar, maybe work at a flea market, maybe be a busboy at a restaurant, maybe have one of those under-the-table jobs. And I didn't want that for myself.

GROSS: What did you want?

Mr. VARGAS: You know, I was really lucky. I mean, a year after that, my English teacher, my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Dewer(ph), introduced me to journalism. I didn't know what journalism was. She just said that I asked a lot of questions, and so she said I should go to this journalism camp at San Francisco State University. It was for free. And so I went.

And I was fascinated by it. I remember, actually, my first-ever - one of my first-ever interviews, if not the first ever, was with a man named Ron Unz. Does that ring a bell, Ron Unz?

GROSS: No, no.

Mr. VARGAS: He was - he authored a bill called Proposition 227, which was all about anti-bilingual education. And he was explaining to me the importance of speaking English. And I remember, you know, I spoke Tagalog, which is the language in the Philippines. You know, English was my second language. And I completely agreed with this man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: I was sitting there thinking: He's right. You know, immigrants in this country must learn English. And I agreed with the guy. I didn't think I was going to agree with him, because I thought he was, quote-unquote, "anti-immigrant."

But I just loved that. I loved that I could talk to people who didn't agree with me, or I love talking to people who have changed my mind.

GROSS: You had learned - after you confronted your grandfather with the fake green card, you had learned that he had gotten forged papers for you. You revealed that in your New York Times magazine article a few weeks ago.

Your grandfather is no longer alive. Could you - would you have revealed that if he was alive, or would you have not written that to protect him?

Mr. VARGAS: That's a really good question. You know, I don't know. I think there was a period in time when I was younger - you know, I guess this is what happens when you're young. You're too immature, and you can't think beyond yourself - I was so mad at them.

I was so mad at my grandfather. I was so mad at my mother. I was so mad at them for putting me in the position that I just found myself in. And then, of course, I got older, and I realized the sacrifices that they made, and I realized why they did what they did.

And I've always wanted to protect them. You know, even the people in the piece, every name in the piece that was mentioned - meaning my choir teacher, my high school principal, my high school superintendent, the guy who ended up actually sending me to college through a scholarship - all of them, before I used their names, I cleared it with every single one of them more than twice because I didn't want to endanger them.

You know, I didn't want to drag them into this mess that I'm in. But to my own surprise, they said no, please, you know, include me, include me. I want to be included.

As for my grandfather, you know, I'm not sure. I mean, I certainly would have asked for his permission. He thought he was doing the best thing for me. Now mind you, he and I - ever since I told him, you know, when I was a junior in high school that I was - that I'm gay, our relationship just kind of changed because, I mean, his solution for me, the plan was work under-the-table jobs, marry a woman and get a green card.

Well, when I was a junior in high school, this was right around after Matthew Shepard - you know, I'm sure you remember Matthew Shepard case, when he was, you know, hung on that fence and he died. I mean, that was really - I think for my generation, that's a big, big kind of memory for us, for a lot of closeted kids back then.

I - after that happened, I just came out. So after that happened, my grandfather was really disappointed in me, because, you know, I basically was not going by his plan. And I remembered my reasoning to him was, you know, I'm not going to tell another lie.

It's one thing to live with this kind of lie, to being an undocumented immigrant. It was whole other thing to marry a woman to get a green card. I was not going to do that.

GROSS: Okay, so you ruled out a green card marriage. You came out as gay because you didn't want to live a lie. Yet you were forced to lie about a lot of things just in order to stay here and be employed here and have a driver's license.

But you write you convinced yourself that if you worked enough and achieved enough, you would be rewarded with citizenship. Why did you think that? I mean, you know...

Mr. VARGAS: Doesn't it sound like something like a 19 and 18-year-old would actually think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: I remember actually thinking that. I remember actually thinking to myself - and, you know, this is where journalism comes in, right. I remember once when I was younger - I spent a lot of time in public libraries because I wanted to really read, you know, like really read, I mean, like New Yorker read, like read long things.

And I remember a quote about journalism being the first draft of the history. And I remember thinking to myself: What if I write all these stories, like how can people say I don't exist? And, you know, this is around the time that - you know, I grew up in California and right around 180, you know, Proposition 187, you know, kind of the sting of that.

GROSS: What was Proposition 187?

Mr. VARGAS: 187 was, basically, in many circles, called the anti-immigration bill. You know, undocumented immigrants couldn't get social services, right. Or this was the kind of time in which some kids actually went to school with their green cards because they were afraid that teachers were going to ask for their green cards to make sure that they're supposed to be in this country.

That's the kind of law that's, in many ways, a precursor to what we're seeing in Alabama and in Georgia and Arizona.

GROSS: Not to mention that bill passed, but it was ruled unconstitutional.

Mr. VARGAS: It was ruled unconstitutional in Georgia, yeah. But whenever I heard the term illegal alien, once I knew that I was undocumented, I knew that I'm not illegal as a human being, and I'm not an alien. And somehow journalism, you know, seeing my name, you know, in print, interviewing Americans, writing in English, covering things happening in America, somehow it made me feel like, okay, you know, I'm contributing. I am one of you.

So I convinced myself that I actually thought if I wrote enough articles, if I got to cover, like, a presidential campaign or something, or maybe if I started writing for this thing called the New Yorker - because I remember picking up the New Yorker and not being able to actually get through it - I actually thought to myself that that would be success, and somehow success was going to buy me citizenship, that I was going to get it because I deserved it.

And then, of course, that's not the truth. And, of course, last year, by last year, when I did - ended up writing for the New Yorker, and I was still in the same spot.

GROSS: My guest is Jose Antonio Vargas. His article "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" was published in the New York Times Magazine in June.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jose Antonio Vargas. After sharing a Pulitzer Prize for his Washington Post coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, writing for the Huffington Post and profiling Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker, he revealed in a New York Times Magazine article last month that he's an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines.

He didn't know he was undocumented until he was 16, four years after his mother sent him to the U.S.

You know, I think a lot of people have been basically making this comment that you were working as a journalist, which is about uncovering the truth, yet you were telling fundamental lies about yourself. So was journalism therefore the wrong profession for you? Were you betraying your profession by not being honest about yourself?

Mr. VARGAS: I completely understand that question, and I completely, of course, have read some of the criticism about this. And the question that I've always had is: What would they have done if they were in my shoes?

And I think kind of this idea of almost like a false equivalency, you know, I had to lie to work, to be in those newsrooms. Now, granted, getting hired onto the San Francisco Chronicle or the Washington Post or the Huffington Post are not easy things.

Let's leave immigration out of it. Just getting hired onto those staffs and onto those newsrooms or writing for The New Yorker, those are not easy things. But I wanted to be in those newsrooms, and to be in those newsrooms, I had to lie about who I was.

But the work, the journalism, you know, I've written maybe 650 articles since I was 17 years old. No one has kind of questioned not just the balance or the, you know, the kind of the work, and I think in many ways, I even beat myself up so much.

I'm one of those people, I've had maybe eight corrections my entire career, and most of them are, like, spelling-related. I am vigilant when it comes to my journalism.

GROSS: Now, when you were working at the Washington Post - you write about this in your New York Times article. When you were working at the Washington Post, you told your editor, Peter Perl, about your predicament, that you were undocumented.

Mr. VARGAS: Yes, yes.

GROSS: And so now he's exposed.

Mr. VARGAS: By the way, I mean, back to my earlier point about this...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. VARGAS: I went back and forth with Peter on this, because I said to him: You know, I don't need to include you in this piece. My instinct was to protect him. And I'm so sorry that I had to put him in that spot.

I remember when I first told him, you know, that afternoon in the park, my...

GROSS: Why did you tell him?

Mr. VARGAS: I told him because, you know, I got - it was one thing for me to be working at the San Francisco Chronicle and being kind of among my support network, right. I was in the Bay Area, and that's where everybody - you know, my grandparents were there, my principal, my superintendent and my support system was there.

I didn't know anybody in Washington, D.C. And I get here, you know, this was -I got here summer of 2004. I was so excited. I think I got here two days after I graduated from college.

And then I was here for a few months, and I started thinking: This is really crazy. Like, what if anybody found out? And it was kind of starting to show just how stressed out I was. I think some editors in the newsroom - I remember a woman was asking me why I always look so stressed out. She said that I always looked so anxious, you know, that I always looked - that I was worried about my job.

And I remember going back to my desk, and like: Peter, I actually wrote him email. Peter, you know, we need to go off for coffee. And thank God he agreed. And so we went out for coffee, and that's when I told him.

And I remember thinking to myself, okay. I didn't know how he was going - I really didn't know what he was going to say or how he was going to react. All I knew is that I needed to tell somebody, and I trusted peter more than anybody else in the newsroom. You know, he had been nice to me. He had been a mentor when I was just an intern, just the previous summer before.

So I told him. And I remember - I realized telling him what an uncomfortable position I had put him in. So I apologized for that. And what surprised me was his response. It was like the humanity in his response. I mean, it still kills me to this day how this man could just look at me and say: You know, this is our problem now. I'm going to help you out. It's going to be okay. You know?

You know, he knew that if he would have told the top editors at the Washington Post, that I would have been in trouble. You know, I might have been deported. They would have had to fire me. And he thought that I was a promising journalist, that he didn't want to put me in that situation.

GROSS: So this is an interesting example of how telling the truth to anybody potentially endangers them, and that might be more so true now because, like, didn't Alabama just pass a law that - the harboring one?

Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, they did.

GROSS: Why don't you explain the law and how - would that have affected your -the predicament of people who you told your status to?

Mr. VARGAS: You know, I mean, laws are getting passed in states like Alabama that basically would punish American citizens who are quote-unquote "harboring undocumented people."

You know, since the federal government hasn't been able to muster or to get comprehensive immigration reform passed, states are taking it upon themselves to police and to enforce laws.

GROSS: Jose Antonio Vargas will be back in the second half of the show. His article "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" was published in June in the Washington Post.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jose Antonio Vargas. Last month in his article in The New York Times Magazine, he revealed that he's an undocumented immigrant. His mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the U.S. when he was 12 in 1993. His family led him to believe that he was here legitimately. He stumbled on the truth when he was 16. But with the help of fake documents he was able to get a drivers license and use that as ID. He successfully pursued a career in journalism. When he was a Washington Post reporter, he shared a Pulitzer Prize. He profiled Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker. But everything's changed now.

So if the law stays as it is now, if immigration law stays as it is now, what are your options?

Mr. VARGAS: That's actually what we're figuring out right now...

GROSS: We being you and your lawyers?

Mr. VARGAS: Yes. I have a team of, you know, lawyers who are helping me out to figure out what the options are. But in the meantime, you know, this is what, as I said in the essay, you know, I had gotten a second drivers license and that would've bought me five years. It would've given me five years to keep living the way I was living. You know, I could've continued on writing magazine articles and working for a news organization, but I decided that I don't want that kind of life anymore. And not just for me but for thousands, you know, of what, 11 million undocumented people in this country. I...

GROSS: Were you afraid that you were pushing your luck too, that at some point you were going to be found out and better to just expose it yourself than to...

Mr. VARGAS: There was a part of that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VARGAS: I mean people have asked me, you know, was somebody threatening to out you? Like, no. No one was threatening to out me. I mean I decided to come forward with it. I just didn't want this kind of life anymore. And whatever it is that I'm going through, a lot of other people are going through it.

GROSS: So if you could just give us like a short version of what the path to citizenship would be for someone who arrived in the United States from another country undocumented at the age of 16 or younger. You know, if the Dream Act passed - and I realize there's been different versions of the Dream Act and now there is a House version and a Senate version.

Mr. VARGAS: Yes.

GROSS: But just like what the gist of it is.

Mr. VARGAS: The gist of it is, is you know, it's basically a conditional path to legalization for somebody who could either go to college, you know, graduating from a four-year college institution or joining the military. Basically these are the kind of, you know, contributing citizens that we would want in this country, right? But basically the ones who want to pursue higher education and pursue careers.

GROSS: Or join the military.

Mr. VARGAS: Or join the military, yeah, which is a career. But yeah. So this is not just for everyone. I mean think about how many people in this country don't pursue college education, right? So these are for undocumented, young undocumented Americans, undocumented immigrants who would want to pursue college education and be contributing members, or in the military, and be contributing parts of society. That's what it would give. But again, it's conditional. It's not just a blanket quote-unquote "amnesty," which is often the word that gets thrown around, that it would just be a blanket amnesty for every undocumented immigrant out there. Well, that's just not the truth.

GROSS: So you started a new organization called Define American.

Mr. VARGAS: Yes.

GROSS: Which you describe is seeking to change the conversation on immigration reform. What needs to be changed in the conversation, do you think?

Mr. VARGAS: It's really more elevating and reframing the conversation, meaning that when people say a path to citizenship, the first word that doesn't come to mind is amnesty. Or when people say illegal immigration, the first thing to come to mind is Latinos, for example. And I think in many ways what Define American seeks to do is really kind of broaden the conversation around immigration and take it out of the ghetto that it's been in.

For example, you know, last year, you know, there's a study just came out of the Immigration Policy Center that said that last year undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in local and state taxes. A lot of people seem to think, most people in America think that undocumented immigrants just take resources and not give anything back. Well, that's just not the truth. A lot of people seem to think that undocumented immigrants don't want to assimilate to America or don't want to learn English. Well, that's just not the truth.

I think everybody can agree that our immigration system is broken. We have not told the truth about it. We have not come to the table and say, all right, these other problems - how do we balance the need for enforcement, border security enforcement, how do we balance that with actually granting some sort of path to legalization to people who have been here, who are educated here, who could be contributing society? The fact of the matter is, this country is not going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. What are we supposed to do with them? What are we supposed to do with these kids? What are we supposed to do with them?

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. VARGAS: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Jose Antonio Vargas's article, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," was published in June in The New York Times magazine. He founded the new group Define American with the goal of changing the conversation on immigration reform. You'll find a link to the group and to his magazine article on our website,

Coming up, we get the reaction of Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates low immigration and strict enforcement.

This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.