Jose Antonio Vargas: 'If I Didn't Tell Those Lies ... I Couldn't Have Survived'

Originally published on June 27, 2011 10:02 am

There were two words, said Michele Norris, missing in Jose Antonio Vargas' New York Times Magazine piece. Vargas, as we reported, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who came out as an undocumented immigrant in a detailed story to be published on Sunday. But, Michele told him, he never said, "I'm sorry."

In the piece, Vargas recounts how he had to doctor a Social Security card and say that he was a U.S. citizen to obtain jobs at publications like the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post.

"I am sorry for breaking the country's laws — my country's laws," Vargas told Michele on All Things Considered. "I am no different than anybody else in that I wanted to live my life and I wanted to survive and if I didn't tell those lies, I couldn't have gotten work and I couldn't have survived."

But those lies, he said, got to him.

Vargas said it's important to remember that he came forward with his story.

"It's get exhausting," he said. "I came forward because I couldn't do it anymore. If I can't do it anymore, imagine how many millions of other people out there can't do it anymore.

"Imagine how many kids out there ... who are sitting in those classrooms across this country are thinking to themselves, 'What am I going to do?'" he said.

"This is what this is about."

Vargas said he made a decision to come clean about his legal status last December when the Senate rejected the DREAM Act. The legislation would have given legal status to children who were going to school and had been brought to the country illegally by their parents.

Vargas said that day he took a long walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. The previous months, he had been watching news about a group of students who walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., in support of the DREAM Act. Vargas said throughout his journalism career, he's written some 650 news pieces, but this was the story he was afraid to tell.

But, inspired by the students, he decided, "there something here I can do."

"This can't be just about me," he said. "I'm hoping to use this conversation in a broader sense. I want to look at this issue as holistically as possible and not play political football with it."

So with his story, he said, he challenges who people think undocumented immigrants are. Vargas also told Michele another story:

He said that while he was covering the 2008 primaries for The Washington Post, he woke up in a Kentucky motel when he saw a white cleaning lady. Vargas had never seen a white person cleaning a hotel room. So he got to talking to her and found out she traveled more than 40 miles a day to work this job.

With the economy the way it is, said Vargas, and given the changing demographics of the country, he understands that people feel "unsettled."

"This is the kind of complicated gray area that I'm mostly interested in when I talk about immigration moving forward," he said.

Still there are personal issues Vargas will likely have to face. He said his lawyers told him that writing this story he was committing "legal suicide:"

Vargas also talked to Michele about how his family is feeling:

He said his grandmother has been crying since the the story broke.

"I cannot even imagine the burden," he said. "She is so scared and worried." In August, he said, she will turn 75.

"I told her that by them I'm hoping everything will be over," he said. "And I'm going to throw her a really big party, and she's not going to have to worry about it."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

This week, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist made news and with quite a splash. After nearly 20 years in the U.S., Jose Antonio Vargas revealed that he's in this country illegally. When he was 12, his mother put him on a plane in the Philippines and with the help of a fixer, using fake documents, he landed in northern California.

He lived with his grandparents, who were both naturalized citizens, and he fully immersed himself in American culture. But he never knew that he wasn't officially American until, at the age of 16, he tried and failed to obtain a driver's license.

Vargas has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post and The New Yorker magazine. His story called "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" will appear in this Sunday's New York Times magazine and it's already available online.

Jose Antonio Vargas joins now us from New York. Welcome to the program.

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

NORRIS: Why did you decide to tell your story now right now?

Mr. VARGAS: You know, last year was really kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: ...surreal for me. I mean, if you cared about immigration as I did, as I do, you know, you're watching all the stories, you know, stream online. And you're watching how a lot of young, undocumented kids in their, you know, high school and college telling their own stories about what it's like living as an undocumented person.

There were four students from Miami that actually walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the DREAM Act. And, you know, the DREAM Act was introduced a year after I graduated from high school, 2001. And my question was there's something here I could do. I made up my mind for sure on December 18th - that was when the DREAM Act failed the Senate. It was around maybe 1 PM or so and I took a long walk, walked to the Brooklyn Bridge and that was when I made up my mind.

NORRIS: So you decided at one point that you were covering the story, but actually you were the story.

Mr. VARGAS: Yeah. And I think all of us as journalists, you know, I mean, we're trained to be objective sort of. But, you know, objectivity is a luxury. I mean, I think, you know, I've written enough stories that I think they stand on their own, that no one can question kind of the journalistic acumen and the journalistic ethics in them.

But I went on in such great detail in the piece to kind of illuminate just how dysfunctional and broken the system is.

NORRIS: You are a former journalist at this point. Or do you still consider yourself to be a journalist? Because you're an advocate and you really - it's sort of hard to be both.

Mr. VARGAS: That's a very good question. I am a journalist. You know, I go to church every day, it's journalism. It's my church. It's my religion. It's all I know how to do. It's all I've known what to do. And what I'm hoping to be doing in the next few months, leading into the 2012 presidential campaign, is really try to make sure that we're looking at this issue as holistically as possible.

You know, three years ago, I was on the campaign trail covering the race - the presidential campaign for The Washington Post. And immigration is such an issue that we cover with almost kid gloves. I think a lot of the coverage has been, you know, it's a right issue, it's a left issue. There are some profiles but not enough.

You know, the census just came out, right? We are leading into a minority-majority country. People feel unsettled. They feel like the country is changing - it's changing so much. The definition of American is changing. What is this about? You know, at the end of the day, there are 11 million undocumented people in this country.

And if there is one statement that I wanted to make with this piece is, we are not who you think we are. We're not just the people that mow your lawns and clean your hotel rooms and serve your tacos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: We're not. We've become woven into the fabric of this country.

NORRIS: Now, I have to ask you though. As you know, there are millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Mr. VARGAS: Yes.

NORRIS: And tens of thousands of them could potentially be eligible for citizenship or at least a path to citizenship under the DREAM Act. But is doing what you've done the best way to help their cause? And I ask this with someone in mind. I was listening to AM radio this morning and I heard a caller who identified herself as an undocumented person. In fact, she used the word illegal to talk about her own self.

And she said this is going to make him, you, Jose Antonio Vargas rich and famous. He'll get a book contract. He'll maybe even get a movie deal. And then she asked the question: What about me? How does this help me? Does she have a point?

Mr. VARGAS: She totally has a point and this is totally about her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: I mean, this much I promise you, as I move forward with this, I will certainly make sure that this does not just become the Jose Antonio Vargas Show. I mean, the media's going to try to do that, you know, for the next few days and weeks. But as long as I'm, you know, doing this, I'm going to make sure that this is not just about me.

NORRIS: The media will also hit you with some sharp questions and put you under a very, very, powerful microscope.

Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, of course. Of course.

NORRIS: And one of the things that people wonder about is the sort of duality in your life; the lies that you had to tell. You're coming out in writing this tell-all at the same time that you're launching this new group called Define American...

Mr. VARGAS: Yes.

NORRIS: ...that is a pushing for the passage of the DREAM Act. And when you were actually working as a journalist, in order to hold on to that position and that job, you had to tell a series of lies.

Mr. VARGAS: Yes. Yes.

NORRIS: And journalists are usually known as people who don't take sides in controversial issues. They usually pursue the truth and explain the laws.

In your case, you broke the laws and avoided the truth. And some of your critics say that the two words that are missing from your story so far are: I'm sorry.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: I actually thought that that was pretty - in the video that accompanied on the website, if you go to, I am sorry for breaking the country's laws - my country's laws. I am no different than anybody else in that I wanted to live my life and I wanted to survive. And if I didn't tell those lies I couldn't have gotten work and I couldn't have survived.

I mean, the hardest conflict for me has been - how do you live honestly with lies? I remember the earliest...

NORRIS: How hard was that for you?

Mr. VARGAS: You know, the hardest thing was, you know, I really broke my grandfather's heart. I'm really hoping that, you know, people reading the piece don't think that I threw him under the bus. I loved him. I loved him very, very much.

When I told him that I'm gay and that I'm not going to marry a woman to get a green card, he just looked at me like - you know, the relationship was never the same. I wasn't going to live with that other lie. One was big enough.

And back to the critics and this idea that I've lived, like, kind of a dual life. I have written 615 news articles. I've maybe had maybe nine or 10 corrections in my entire career. I don't think a single source, including Mark Zuckerberg - who profiled for the New Yorker - or Al Gore, who I profiled for Rolling Stone, have come forward and said, oh, I never said that.

I have tried to do my job the best way that I could do it. And the work, I think, speaks for itself.

NORRIS: What did you have to do to obtain the journalism jobs that you've held along the way? How did you have to sort of fudge information to find work in America's newsrooms?

Mr. VARGAS: I needed to learn how to write well. But more than that, I think I really needed to stand out, you know. I couldn't just check the box that said resident alien. I remember the first time I did this was at the Chronicle in San Francisco. If I checked the resident alien box, I couldn't check it because I didn't have the card to give them because the DMV woman, right, when I was 16 told me that it was fake and my grandfather said I couldn't show it to anybody else. So I couldn't check that box.

The other box said citizen. But then at the bottom of the box, it said: If you check this box, this is against the law.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: I was maybe 19. And I'm looking at the box and, you know, this is going to sound deluded but I actually just thought to myself, okay, so why don't I check that box and then, why don't I just try to live up to what that word means? Like, what does citizen mean? You know, like, do I just work hard? Do I pay taxes? Do I try to contribute? Do I try to be an upstanding citizen? Do I try to look at other people even though that they don't agree with me? Do I try to write really good articles? Maybe that's what that means, at least for me.

You know, my grandfather, all he wanted me to do was work under the table jobs. That was the plan: Work under the table jobs and then marry a woman. That was the plan. And so, as I got more and more, quote-unquote, "successful" - I don't consider myself really a success.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: I think being successful is being able to actually go to bed in peace.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VARGAS: And I don't think I've actually ever had that.

America, to me, has been about providing for yourself.

NORRIS: What does your family think of this?

Mr. VARGAS: I've had six months to kind of prepare everybody.

NORRIS: You can prepare them but it's another thing when outside eyes get in the, you know, get a chance to look in there.

Mr. VARGAS: Oh yeah, definitely. My grandmother, my Lola - Lola is a term for grandmother in Tagalog. She's been crying a lot and she is so scared and worried. And I told her actually the other day - she is going to be 75 next August - I told her two days ago and I'm hoping that all of this by then would be over, and that she and I were going to throw a really, really big party and she's not going to have to worry about it. And I really hope, you know, at some point that happens.

NORRIS: How about your mom? She's still in the Philippines?

Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, she's still in the Philippines. You know, the irony of this, I've spent more time talking to her in the past two months than I've ever spoken to her in the past 18 years. You know, the hardest thing to write in the whole essay, when I had to write that I was so mad at her and that I was so mad at myself for being mad at her. You know, that took maybe a week and two pints of ice cream to get down.

I want to be able to see her. And again, I'm - this is just one - this is just me. I can only imagine how many other people out there who, because of these laws, haven't been able to see their families.

NORRIS: When's the last time you saw her?

Mr. VARGAS: It must have been August 1st, 1993.

NORRIS: Jose, there are authorities who will read your story, there are people who might even listen to this conversation, and they will have to make a decision about what they do.

If you marked off U.S. citizen on your I-9 forms, or if you used a phony Social Security card, you would be in violation of the law. If you filed taxes under false - under a false Social Security number, you would be in violation of the law. You could be detained because of your immigration status. You could possibly be deported. What did your attorneys tell you to be ready for once you publish this story?

Mr. VARGAS: Well, lawyers told me not to publish this story at all. One of then, I think, said it was like legal suicide. You know, what is the priority here? Is the priority here me or is the priority here the issue?

Well, the priority here for me was the issue. The priority here for me was to shine a light and to really tell Americans out there - first of all, I am an American, I am. But second of all, what is it that people like me have to deal with every day?

So I've had to basically put the legal side in one corner and say, all right, you know, you got to do what you got to do, and I got to do what I got to do. But this can't just be about me.

NORRIS: Jose Antonio Vargas, thank you for your time.

Mr. VARGAS: Thank you. Thanks a lot for your time. I really appreciate it.

NORRIS: Jose Antonio Vargas, his story "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," will appear in this Sunday's New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.