WASHINGTON — For the past eight years, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas worried about a looming deadline: the expiration of a fake Oregon driver’s license that had allowed him to get his first full-time job at a top U.S. newspaper.
The 30-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winner who covered the Virginia Tech massacre for The Washington Post was using a fake license to help cover up a secret: He was an illegal immigrant.
He could have opted for a reprieve. Vargas recently obtained a Washington state driver’s license, offering him five more years to be able to document his residency in the U.S. – but that also would mean five more years of lying.
Instead, he decided to go public.
“I’m done running. I’m exhausted,” Vargas wrote in a New York Times Magazine essay posted online Wednesday. “I don’t want that life anymore.”
Vargas, whose mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in California when he was 12, said he now wants to push Congress to pass a bill called the DREAM Act and open a path to citizenship for people like him if they go to college or serve in the military.
Vargas referred a request for comment from The Associated Press to his public relations team, which did not immediately make him available Wednesday. He also spoke to ABC News in interviews that will air Thursday and Friday.
He says he didn’t know about his citizenship status until four years after he arrived in the U.S., when he applied for a driver’s permit and handed a clerk his green card.
“This is fake,” a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk said, according to Vargas’ account. “Don’t come back here again.”
Vargas confronted his grandfather, who acknowledged he purchased the green card and other fake documents.
“I remember the very first instinct was, `OK, that’s it, get rid of the accent,'” Vargas told ABC. “Because I just thought to myself, you know, I couldn’t give anybody any reason to ever doubt that I’m an American.”
He convinced himself that if he worked hard enough and achieved enough, he would be rewarded with citizenship, Vargas wrote in the magazine piece.
When Vargas also told his grandfather he was gay, however, it made life even more difficult. He was kicked out of his house for a few weeks in high school – and his grandfather said Vargas needed to marry an American woman in order to get a green card.
His grandfather had imagined the fake documents would help Vargas get low-wage jobs. College seemed out of reach, until Vargas told Mountain View High School Principal Pat Hyland and school district Superintendent Rich Fisher about his problem. They became mentors and surrogate parents, eventually finding a scholarship fund for high-achieving students that allowed him to attend San Francisco State University.
Vargas found internships at The San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. He was denied an internship at The Seattle Times because he didn’t have all the documents they required. But he kept applying and got an offer from The Washington Post.
The newspaper required a driver’s license, so Vargas said his network of mentors helped him get one from Oregon, which has less stringent requirements than some other states.
Once hired full-time at the Post, he used the fake license to cover Washington events, including a state dinner at the White House, Vargas recalled.
He wrote that he felt nearly paralyzed with anxiety that his secret would be found out at the Post. He tried to avoid reporting on immigration policy, but at times, it was impossible. At one point, he wrote about then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s position on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Vargas eventually told his mentor, Peter Perl, now the newspaper’s training director. Perl told him that once he had accomplished more, they would tell then-Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Post Chairman Don Graham together. They kept the secret until Vargas left the paper.
On Wednesday, Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti condemned their actions.
“What Jose did was wrong. What Peter did was wrong,” Coratti said, declining to comment further on personnel matters. “We are also reviewing our internal procedures, and we believe this was an isolated incident of deception.”
An e-mail seeking comment was sent to Perl.
The Post originally planned to publish Vargas’ story, but decided not to. Coratti would not say why.
In an article published Wednesday evening on the Post’s website, the newspaper reported that Vargas approached his old newspaper in March about writing his story. It was to be published Sunday.
But Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli killed it several days before its scheduled publication. Brauchli declined to discuss the reasons with the Post reporter in the Wednesday article.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Cori W. Bassett would not comment specifically on Vargas’ case Wednesday but said the agency prioritizes cases that pose the most significant threat to public safety.
William Perez, a professor at California’s Claremont Graduate University who has written about the DREAM Act, said “coming out” as an illegal immigrant can provide some protection for a young person facing deportation by drumming up support and public outcry. It also raises awareness that many in the same situation can’t simply apply for citizenship in the U.S. They would have to go back to their countries and start the process from scratch, which could take years, except for rare cases where employers sponsor immigrants or they find other connections.
“It is that much harder for folks who are gay or lesbian because that path to citizenship through marriage is simply not an option,” Perez said.
An increasing number of undocumented college graduates have “come out” in recent years. Twelve states now provide in-state tuition for students like Vargas, creating a new crop of savvy immigrant advocates.
“They’re frustrated because they have the preparation, they have the skills and they have no options,” Perez said. “So for them, this is one of the few remaining options to try to influence national policies.”
Vargas shared a Pulitzer Prize for the Post’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. A 2006 series he wrote on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington inspired a documentary film. Last year, he wrote a profile of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker.
Most recently, Vargas was a senior contributing editor at Huffington Post.
On Wednesday, Vargas launched a campaign called Define American to use stories of immigrants like him to urge Congress and the Obama administration to pursue immigration reform. His high school principal and superintendent have signed on as board members.
“You can call me whatever you want to call me, but I am an American,” Vargas told ABC. “No one can take that away from me.”