Filipino Pulitzer Winner Outs Himself As Undocumented

Filipino Pulitzer Winner Outs Himself As Undocumented

Story tools

A A AResize



MANILA, Phils.--  Jose Antonio Vargas was a typical Filipino 12-year-old boy in 1993 when he was handed a jacket and told he was going somewhere cold.

Unknown to him, he was being escorted to the United States without the proper documents by a "coyote" posing as his uncle.

He was to be an illegal alien, which he only discovered four years later when his application for a driver's license was turned down on account of his fake green card.

He would grow up with a love of reading and writing, and while living with the paranoia of an illegal alien, he would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize as a news reporter, the most prestigious award in American journalism.

In a tell-all article published in the New York Times on Wednesday, Vargas narrated his unwitting status as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., hoping his hard work and love for his newfound country would be enough to grant him citizenship.

His article has become one of the most widely-shared links on the social media sites Twitter and Facebook, and his story has been featured on several news sites.

Vargas is just one of the more than 10 million illegal immigrants residing in the US, with many studying in public institutions and performing vital services.

Of that number, at least 280,000 are Filipinos, according to recent data from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics.

In the vernacular, these illegal aliens are called "TNT," short for "Tago Nang Tago," loosely translated to "always hiding" in English.

In Vargas's situation, he was hiding in plain sight.

Web Of Lies

In order to live a "normal" life in the US, Vargas admitted to having fabricated several lies and produced counterfeit documents with the help of his grandfather, who emigrated legally from Zambales in the 1980s.

Using a fake passport, Vargas was able to get a Social Security number and card, his ticket toward employment, among other things, in the US.

"Over time, I also began checking the citizenship box on my federal I-9 employment eligibility forms," he said. In 2003, he was able to get a driver's license from Portland, with the help of his "support network," a small circle of friends and colleagues who knew about his precarious situation.

Yet his life, almost as fabricated as the documents he held in his hands, was clouded with the constant fear of being discovered and sent back to a country he now barely knows.

"[It was] as if I had 'illegal immigrant' tattooed on my forehead," he said. "The anxiety was nearly paralyzing."

Yet no matter how much he avoided it, his problem only found a way to follow him. "On two occasions, I wrote about Hillary Clinton’s position on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants," he said.

"I also wrote an article about Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who was defending his party’s stance toward Latinos," he added.

He said he was trying as much as he could to stand out in the highly competitive newsroom, yet low-key enough so as not to invite "unwanted scrutiny."


There are some truths, however, that Vargas found hard to keep to himself.

After watching a documentary about Harvey Milk, an openly gay city official who was assassinated in San Francisco, California, Vargas outed himself—not as an illegal alien, but as a gay man.

This drew his grandfather's ire. "[He said] I was making matters more difficult for myself," he shared.

"I needed to marry an American woman in order to gain a green card."

Vargas said he was grateful to his grandparents for giving him the chance to live a better life.

However, toward his mother, he confessed, he had mixed emotions:

"Early on, I was mad at her for putting me in this position, and then mad at myself for being angry and ungrateful."

He said it was easier for him to send money to help support his mother and two half-siblings, instead of confronting her about her motives for sending him abroad.

But in a recent phone call, he was able to piece together some details about that moment in 1993, when mother and son parted ways and never saw each other since.

"She [said she] reminded me of the one piece of advice she gave me for blending in: If anyone asked why I was coming to America, I should say I was going to Disneyland," he shared.

It has been 18 years since Vargas last saw his mother and younger sister. "I’ve never met my 14-year-old brother.

I would love to see them," he said.

End Of Hiding

While struggling with this twilight-zone existence, Vargas became an acclaimed journalist.

During his stint at the Washington Post, Vargas shared a Pulitzer Prize with colleagues at the Post for their coverage of the Virgina Tech massacre in 2007, when a deranged student shot 32 people on the university campus.

Yet despite his stellar achievements and the trust he gained in the industry, Vargas admitted feeling empty for leading a life of fear.

"[My new Washington license valid until 2016] offered me five more years of acceptable identification — but also five more years of fear, of lying to people I respect and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am," he said.

In the end, he had no other recourse but to finally draw the white flag, tired from having to work twice as much as a normal person would: towards achieving his dreams while making sure his secret remained just that.

"I learned that no amount of professional success would solve my problem or ease the sense of loss and displacement I felt," he said.

"I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore," he painfully added.

He said his coming out about his best-kept secret is a step towards ending a long cycle of lies and deceit, and owning up to who he really is—an illegal immigrant in the U.S.

American DREAM

What will happen if people find out?

This was the nagging question Vargas' grandmother asked him following his Pulitzer win, and possibly the same question many undocumented immigrants in the U.S. ask themselves day in and day out.

The Pinoy illegal immigrants' situation has been portrayed time and again in many pop culture references, depicting them living in the same houses and finding ways they can "marry" into an American citizenship.

Vargas' confession has earned him poster-boy status for the call to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, a legislation being pushed in the U.S. Congress aiming to grant legal status to undocumented young immigrants.

Under the proposed law, the immigrants who are eligible for U.S. citizenship are those who:

1. have entered the US before the age of 16;
2. have been in the U.S. for at least 5 consecutive years;
3. have graduated from a U.S. high school, or have obtained a GED, or have been accepted into college;
4. are between the age of 12 and 35 at the time of application; and
5. have good moral character are eligible for U.S. citizenship.

In 2010, the DREAM Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, but was thumbed down by the Senate.

According to a December 2010 report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the passage of the bill "would affect federal revenues in a number of ways.

While the new measure could increase U.S. revenues by as much as $2.3 billion over 10 years, the CBO report said it could also increase net direct spending by $912 million over the same period.

It further noted that while the legislation could reduce deficits by about $1.4 billion over the 2011-2020 period, "eventual conversion of some of the conditional non-immigrants to legal permanent resident (LPR) status after 2020 would lead to significant increases in spending for the federal health insurance exchanges, Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)."

CBO has estimated that this would therefore increase projected deficits by more than
$5 billion in at least one of the four consecutive 10-year periods following 2020.

Obama's Order

The DREAM Act was recently reintroduced in the Senate on mid-May by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid following its shelving in end-2010.

Last week, however, the Obama administration quietly issued a memo ordering immigration officials not to deport illegal aliens on grounds similar to what the DREAM Act espouses, according to

The grounds include: if they are enrolled in any type of education program; if their family members have volunteered for U.S. military service; or even if they are pregnant or nursing.

The executive order is seen as a measure meant to halt deportations of youth that would eventually be eligible for the DREAM Act, in the interim that it has not yet been signed into law. Following Vargas' admission, groups clamoring for the passage of the bill have renewed their call for swift action by the U.S. Congress.

The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), one of the members of which is currently advising Vargas on his legal options, has once again urged the U.S. Congress to pass the much-needed bill.

"Approximately 40 to 44 percent of the undocumented student population in the Asian community are Filipino students," said NaFFAA National Chairman Eduardo Navarra. “

They are among hundreds of committed activists whose tireless energy and relentless advocacy made last year’s historic vote possible.

Their courage in speaking out and telling their stories made a big difference in moving this legislation forward," he added.

Vargas himself has admitted to being inspired by such students, which has encouraged him to speak out about his situation.

"Last year I read about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act," he narrated. "At the risk of deportation — the Obama administration has deported almost 800,000 people in the last two years — they are speaking out. Their courage has inspired me."

Immigration lawyer J.T. Mallonga, who is also NaFFAA's national vice chair, meanwhile stressed that Vargas' case has ceased to be a legal issue. "It has become a compelling moral issue which needs to be addressed," he explained.

Admiration for Vargas

Cory O'Connor, a former colleague of Vargas at the Huffington Post, only had one way to describe the 30-year-old journalist: an American Hero.

In an article on the Huffington Post, O'Connor praised Vargas for risking everything he had in his 18-year stay in the U.S. in order to tell the truth.

"If there isn't room in the United States for people like Jose Antonio—the precise type of people who made this country great—I despair for our collective future," he pointed out.

He added that without people like Vargas, "our country will be far poorer."

Initial comments on Vargas' Times article also praised him for vying for the truth and shedding light on an important issue.

Karen from Washington, DC, wrote: "Jose, you are an extremely courageous man. I can't imagine how hard it was to make the decision to reveal your status despite of all of your successes but you knew how important was to bring attention to the issue of young children raised to be all they can be, but bearing the burden of a decision they didn't make."

MizJ7 of New York, on the other hand, pointed out the obvious: "This man has told the story of so many.. Not all who fall in the category of 'illegal immigrants' are 'bad' or came to this country with evil intent," she stressed.

Neilrobert of New Haven, Connecticut, meanwhile, offered a different perspective: "It's time to look at this issue through the prism of the poorest of Americans whose stories of unwanted competition by illegal aliens is the saddest and most under-reported story in American journalism."

No matter what people's opinion are regarding Vargas' decision to reveal his secret, it has achieved the main goal of Define American, a group he established to shed light on the issues of immigration, especially in the U.S.

"Our request is simple: Let’s talk," the group's website says.

It explained that the group's existence is all about asking pertinent questions about immigration policies of the US today: "How do we define an American?

Why do people come to this country? Who are the American citizens who help them?"

"Define American, with your help, will answer those questions," it added.

--- HS/VVP, GMA News