Jose Antonio Vargas: my secret life as an undocumented US immigrant

From The Guardian UK:,
Tuesday 26 July 2011

Scenes from an undocumented life, number one. Jose Antonio Vargas is in his late 20s, a remarkably successful journalist, covering the 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post. He takes a call from his editor. There’s a political meeting he needs to attend. Vargas leaves the gay bar he has been visiting for a story in Gun Barrel City, Texas, gets in his car and starts speeding along the highway. A sheriff stops him. Vargas hands over his driving licence, secured through a social security number that was in turn secured through a fake passport. He waits. He tries to control his nerves. He is worried he might wet himself. Only a few of his close friends know he’s what some Americans disparagingly call “an illegal” and others call an undocumented immigrant.

“I remember thinking,” he says, “I’m a political reporter for the Washington Post. I’m in Texas, I’m covering the primaries, he’s going to go back to his car, and he’s going to put my details into the system, and how long is it going to take him to find out?” Vargas is certain the sheriff is about to discover his secret: that he was sent to the US from the Philippines by his mother, aged 12; that he then grew up with his grandparents, naturalised US citizens, and only learned he was undocumented by accident, aged 16; that he has been trying to make his way as best he can, not always lawfully, ever since.

He confides to the sheriff that he’s on his way to an important story. The sheriff takes pity. Vargas drives on.

Scenes from an undocumented life, number two. Vargas finds out he has a Wikipedia page. This shouldn’t be surprising. Since riding his bike to a fire for his first story, for his local paper, the Mountain View Voice, in 1999, he has pursued his career with blistering drive. His editors at the Washington Post put him forward for a Pulitzer nomination for his moving, deeply researched series about the city’s Aids crisis when he is in his mid-20s. Two years later, aged 27, he actually wins a Pulitzer, as part of the team that covers the Virginia Tech massacre for the paper. After this triumph, he sits in the office bathroom thinking (he mimes slumping despair): “What do I do now? What else can I do?”

He interviews Al Gore for Rolling Stone magazine. He is assigned to interview one of the most famous and famously private men in the world, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, for the New Yorker (a magazine that tops the wishlist for young, ambitious American writers who hope to be noticed). And all the while he is feeling sick at the growing scrutiny. He chose to become a journalist because it represented a form of validation. “I remember the first article I ever wrote, and I saw my name in the paper, and I already knew I was undocumented and I was thinking: how can they now say I don’t exist?” But this validation came with extraordinary risks. “The more successful I got, the more scared I got,” he says, when we meet on a sultry summer day in Manhattan. “My name was all over Google. I had a Wikipedia page I was terrified to look at. And so I just snapped. I thought: if I’m going to come out with this, I’m going to do it in a big way. And not just for myself. This can’t just be my story.”

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