Journalist Vargas to Media: "Immigrant Struggle Is About Us, Not Them"

July 1, 2011

Originally posted at New America Media.

by Odette Keeley

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 at his New York apartment 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. Click on the video link to hear Vargas’s reflections in his own words. This video is accompanied by a profile of Vargas by NAM editor Anthony Advincula.

Pulitzer-Winning Undocumented Journalist Vargas Focused on Passage of DREAM Act from New America Media on Vimeo.

Who is Undocumented? Filipino American Journalist Shatters Stereotypes

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.“I remember those balikbayan boxes [from America] that we would get every two months -- the money we received, the M&Ms, shirts and shoes,” the controversial journalist said in an interview earlier this week.

Vargas' Start In Journalism With YO!

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).

In 1999, as a senior at Mountain View High School in California's Silicon Valley, Vargas came across the magazine while attending a journalism conference and contacted its then-editor, Teresa Moore.

"One day I took the Caltrain to San Francisco, and Teresa Moore and I met at a Starbucks off Market Street," he said. "She became my first editor; she was a hard editor; Teresa whipped me very early."

Moore said when she saw how sharp he was, she decided to whip him into shape by being as demanding an editor as he'd find in any professional newsroom. She added that he ably rose to the challenge.

"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 Moore, now an associate professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco.

Great Potential at 18

Moore saw great potential in Vargas early on. At 18, she said, Vargas was so eager and polite, "He was the only kid who'd set up an appointment to come in and essentially interview for a chance to write for YO!"

At the time YO! was primarily a collection of young people's first-person accounts of their experiences on a number of issues, which Moore described as "a forerunner of what we soon saw in the early blogosphere."

"But Jose was always hungry to know more about reporting -- the facts. Although Jose was not the most interesting writer when I met him, he was the most serious about improving as a writer," she added.

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."

--Anthony Advincula

Speaking at his well-kept apartment near New York’s West Village, Vargas, 30, recounted how his mother told him he was going to live with his grandparents in America someday. His mother’s hope for her son’s future was at the eye of the storm surrounding Vargas.  In a  personal essay that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, the journalist revealed that he does not have a legal status in the United States.

Vargas recounted that he used to read aloud the label “Made in USA,” stamped in bold letters on each product from America. “I would read it like, ‘Ma-de in U-S-A,’” he said, pronouncing each syllable. Noting that the word usa, in his native Tagalog, means “deer,” he added, “I’d think that was hilarious.”

He lamented that without help from his grandparents, life would have been economically difficult for his mother and siblings during those times. His father left them when he was 3.

“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.

“I knew I was going to America, but I never thought what it meant,” he said. “All I could remember was that I was so excited stepping into the airplane for the first time.” He vividly remembers such details of that journey as a flight attendant’s face and his excitement when the airplane lifted off toward a new land.

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, and his Filipino identify mostly mingled with distant childhood memories -- playing with his cousins by the water on visits to Iba, Zambales, along the South China Sea, riding tricycles, and eating mangoes with salt, fish with vinegar, and rice right off banana leaves,” he said.

But Vargas says his memories of his native land are hazy. Even when he spoke with his mother for the New York Times article, he could not clearly recall much that she mentioned. “I was just 12 when I left,” he said.

The prospect of returning to the Philippines for 10 years before he could apply for legal immigration status back to the United States seemed unthinkable.

Pursuing his dream of becoming a journalist in his early 20s, Vargas obtained a fake green card and falsely claimed he was a US 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.

Becoming unemployable

Now that he has come out as being undocumented -- although he thought about the risk of being arrested or deported -- Vargas, who also admitted that he had stopped blogging for the Huffington Post, finds himself mostly concerned about something immediate: his bottom line. 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."

Define American, according to its website, is a project of the nonprofit Tides Center to bring new voices into immigration conversations.

Yet Vargas said that he is still trying to figure out how he will survive in the coming days -- and pay his taxes “so people would not think that I’m mooching up the system.”

Through Define American, Vargas, who is also openly gay, devotes his talents to pushing for the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. The Define American campaign, he added, has been funded by anonymous donors from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he grew up and began his journalism career.

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.

Since his story went viral, Vargas has been swamped with media calls and interviews, making at least four media appearances each day. Last Monday, for instance, he was on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show.

Criticized in Media

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. Although he said he was aware that the article would open him to media criticism -- “but I didn’t expect all this attention” -- not to mention place him in jeopardy of deportation -- Vargas underscored that he wrote the story to personalize the dilemma young DREAM-ers are going through every day.

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’s story and the subsequent media appearances may have alerted federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials about his situation. Vargas admitted that he is worried about it, but he has braced himself for whatever comes.

“I’m ready for everything and anything,” he said. “I think I have to be for coming forward the way I did.”

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.

The day he walked out of the New York Times building, after delivering his story, Vargas said he felt as if he were in a cheesy movie. “I just started skipping. I was, like, 'Wow, OK, it's out. It's done.' It was scary but liberating. Can you imagine holding onto something like this?"

Of Vargas’ many newsroom mentors, one of the first was Teresa Moore. Now an associate professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, she first met him in 1999, when she was the editor of YO! -- Youth Outlook! -- the youth magazine of Pacific News Service (PNS, the parent organization of New America Media).

The 18-year-old high school senior contacted her about contributing freelance articles to YO!. Not only did she quickly see Vargas’ potential (see sidebar to this article about Vargas’ time at YO!), but eventually became a friend, advisor and admirer of him.

“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,” Moore said in an e-mail.

In about 2004, when Vargas was working at the Washington Post, Vargas told her about his undocumented status.

She recalled, “I was afraid Jose, who I had come to respect as a journalist and love as a friend, would be jailed or deported.”

Moore knew Vargas was torn between his anxiety over carrying his immigration secret and his fear of what would happen when he came forward. A year ago, Moore said, she saw he was tired of hiding and on the verge of coming forward. “That’s how heavily this was weighing on him,” she said.

Early this year, Moore said, she suggested he consider applying for a private congressional bill to gain legal immigration status. “He told me he would feel guilty if he got status that way when so many DREAM Act kids -- who don’t have his professional success or media access -- wouldn’t have that recourse.”

Hoping for Strength in Numbers

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.

“I keep waiting for the doctor to write me. The lawyer who’d say, ‘Hey, I went through the same thing -- and I’m still undocumented,” he said. “There’s gotta be somebody else out there, and I’m hoping he or she would come out.”

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.

“The journey seems outward, but most of these journeys are actually inward,” Vargas said. “It’s almost like finding myself more.”

Video Credits for Clips of Jose Antonio Vargas: Define and via “Balitang America”  The Filipino Channel -- ABS-CBN Int’l

Odette Keeley is host and executive producer of “New America Now," NAM’s TV show, as well as anchor for NAM segments on “Upside” -- both airing on COMCAST Hometown Network -- CHN 104 & COMCAST ON DEMAND.  Anthony Advincula is NAM’s New York-based editor. Eming Piansay is content producer for NAM & YO! Youth Outlook