Today was a big day in the immigration reform movement. CIR (comprehensive immigration reform) was introduced in the Senate again, and Pulitzer Prize Award winning journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, came out as undocumented. You can read my quick take on the introduction of CIR here, but I want to focus a little more on the Jose Antonio Vargas story.
For those of you who follow media, you may know Jose Antonio Vargas as a journalist who had been at The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and has had the privilege of interviewing high profile celebrities and leaders. Like many others, I enjoyed reading his profiles and his pieces about technology and society. Vargas was even part of The Washington Post team that earned a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Virginia Tech shootings.
Like many young people who are undocumented, Vargas found out about his status while in high school although he had been in the US since the age of 12 having arrived from the Philippines. Since discovering that he was an undocumented immigrant, he has relied on a network or “an underground railroad” that has helped provide cover for him so that he could finish school and obtain work. With a fake passport and a photocopied Social Security card, Vargas was able to navigate the employment system. He even knowingly checked off the citizenship box on I-9 employment eligibility forms despite feeling a strong sense of guilt for doing so.
“For more than a decade of getting part-time and full-time jobs, employers have rarely asked to check my original Social Security card. When they did, I showed the photocopied version, which they accepted. Over time, I also began checking the citizenship box on my federal I-9 employment eligibility forms. (Claiming full citizenship was actually easier than declaring permanent resident “green card” status, which would have required me to provide an alien registration number.)
This deceit never got easier. The more I did it, the more I felt like an impostor, the more guilt I carried — and the more I worried that I would get caught. But I kept doing it. I needed to live and survive on my own, and I decided this was the way.”
This admission of deceit at this level is going to make many uncomfortable — even those who may be more sympathetic to undocumented workers and open minded about reforming the immigration system. I will admit that I felt a little uneasy when I first read Vargas’ story this morning, especially in light of all of the recent news about professional journalists being laid off from their jobs. For all these years, this guy was “gaming the system” in a profession where ethics and guarding sensitive information and sources are paramount. Yet at the same time, Vargas’ story is one of a young person trying to prove his “worthiness as an American” with hard work and perseverance. And he does explain how guilty he felt for continuing the lies and has apologized to employers for doing so.
As I see it, there are many shades of grey in this situation, and Vargas’ admission is definitely going to spark debate. I doubt that the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security will want to make an example of Vargas by throwing him into deportation proceedings given his public prominence, but where does that leave the other undocumented people who aren’t Pulitzer Prize winners and who don’t have friends in high places who are willing to vouch for their work and character? Much like the larger American community, you have the dynamics of privilege playing out with those who are undocumented.
I encourage you to check out the video below of Jose Antonio Vargas sharing his story as he attempts to “Define American“, and do share your thoughts: