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.
“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.
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 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 theWashington 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—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 American.com 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