Jose Antonio Vargas is running. He’s fresh off the red-eye from California to Dulles — his third overnight flight in as many weeks — to deliver yet another speech. He grabs his backpack and goes, delivering nearly 300 talks in 44 states over the past three years. He has moved, in just five years, from Washington to New York to San Francisco. He’s in a hurry to convince his fellow Americans that people like him should be considered fellow Americans.
Vargas, 33, has always been running, since he found out at 16 that he was in the United States illegally, and before that too, as a child whose mother put her 12-year-old on a plane from the Philippines to California, telling him that if anyone asked where he was going, he should say “Disneyland.” He hasn’t seen her since.
He runs because it got him to where he is. When he was a 27-year-old reporter at The Washington Post, his editors assigned him to cover the 2008 presidential campaign because they thought he could see what young voters were thinking. ABC’s Diane Sawyer called him “one of the most successful young men in this country.” Arianna Huffington hired him to help her Huffington Post staff connect with digital natives.
He runs because he never knows when the immigration authorities or the Border Patrol or any cop in the land might grab him, as they did this summer in Texas, tossing him in a cell for eight hours. Vargas has never had a valid visa or green card; he used to travel with an illegally obtained driver’s license and, after 2011, a Philippines passport. Now, he has been ordered to pass through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints using the oddest of travel documents, a “Warrant for Arrest of Alien” on U.S. Border Patrol letterhead. It says Vargas is “within the country in violation of the immigration laws and is liable to being taken into custody.” He keeps it in his backpack. He calls the document “my first American papers.”
Vargas runs because he has much to prove, even after a meteoric rise as a reporter; even after he achieved his golden ambition, a piece in the New Yorker; even after a sudden flip from journalism to activism and instant celebrity in that field — the cover of Time, live coverage on CNN of his arrest in July. And yes, even after Thursday night, when President Obama announced his move to at least temporarily lift the threat of deportation from millions of illegal immigrants, including Vargas.
“So now I get a real work permit for the first time in my life?” he says a few hours after the president’s address to the nation. “I get a driver’s license? I get to see my mom? Is that how it works? It feels real to me, even if it’s temporary.”
He runs even now, because there are millions of undocumented immigrants whose status remains unchanged by Obama’s executive action. He runs because he misses his mother and has no idea when he will be able to see her. And because if he slows down, his secrets might catch up to him. And because to stop would be to face the depths of his loneliness.
Joseiswriting. That’s his Twitter handle. He tweets, e-mails, writes essays, scripts, speeches and stories. It’s 6:17 a.m. and Vargas is flying from Chicago — where he’d been for 36 hours, giving two talks about immigration — to San Francisco, where he’ll be for 18 hours before another red-eye to Washington, where he’ll spend eight hours, then jump on Amtrak to New York.
“I have a lot on my mind and feel compelled to share some thoughts with you,” he writes me from his eighth flight of the week. “I’ve been running since I was 16, since my Lolo [grandpa] told me my papers were fake, when he said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here.’ But . . . since I am here, I better contribute and I better prove to people that I am here — hence my journalism. . . .”
He arrived in Los Angeles on Aug. 3, 1993, to live with his grandfather, a security guard, and his grandmother, a food server. He had 37 relatives in this country and he was the only one among them who was not here legally. He didn’t know that until he went to the DMV to apply for a driver’s permit. He showed his green card and was informed it was a fake.
“I spent all of my 20s being scared s---less: scared of the government, scared of myself,” he writes. “I didn’t know if I could keep going, if I could keep lying.”
He writes about the places he would visit if he were free to travel: the beaches of the province where he grew up; Prince Edward Island in Canada, where his favorite movie, “Anne of Green Gables,” was filmed; Paris, where his hero James Baldwin wrote.
He writes now about how Americans see him — not as a journalist, not even as a gay man (he came out in high school, in history class), but as an illegal immigrant: “We were terrorized in 9/11. Then we started terrorizing each other, with the immigrant — the illegal, the alien — as the quintessential ‘other’ in America.”
He writes now about himself: “I feel like my life — my real life, a more honest life, a more fulfilling life — started three summers ago, when I ‘outed’ myself as undocumented.”
But what Vargas thought would liberate him turns out to have hemmed him in. “Instead of feeling freer and relieved, I’ve watched him now become so burdened,” says a longtime close friend, Nathalie Wade. “Ironically, because he’s become this symbol of undocumented Americans, all these judgments are imposed upon him and he’s lost his ability to be himself, to be unafraid. He’s ended up something he never meant to be.”
Vargas resists the idea that he has become a political animal: “I had a career before, and I intend to have one after,” he says one day. “I am more than an immigration activist.”
Two weeks later, in another conversation, he tries on a different hat: “In the detention cell, I realized this is now my life. Maybe my plan to do this for three years wasn’t right. But I can’t do this forever. I’m still running. But I’m not running away anymore. I’m running toward something.”
Jose Vargas is pushing.
In July, Vargas went to the Texas-Mexico border to film scenes of large numbers of children arriving from Central America. He knew before he went that people within 100 miles of the border were subject to a check of their immigration status. At the airport in McAllen, Tex., as he was heading home, Vargas was stopped, questioned and taken into custody. A local reporter, tipped off by immigration activists that Vargas would be trying to get onto a plane, shot video of the encounter.
The story went viral. Some accused Vargas of staging a provocation, seeking attention for himself as much as for his cause.
“Some people in the media say it was a stunt,” Vargas says, “but I needed to get out of there. And I feel like my job is to expose all the cracks in the system.”
He spent eight hours in a cell with some of the children who had been pouring over the border.
Vargas calls his decision to go to McAllen an exercise in “radical transparency,” of a kind with the time he called immigration authorities to ask what they intended to do with him (they had no answer).
Since his stint in detention, Vargas has worn his cordovan oxford shoes loose, with empty eyelets, because the guards took away his laces and he wants to remember his humiliation and anger.
“Undocumented people get arrested all the time,” he says. “I get arrested, and it’s front-page news. I feel guilt.”
Even if the president’s initiative stands and the threat of deportation is lifted for some, the politics of immigration remain volatile and Vargas’s future is still uncertain, all of which leaves him eager to keep confronting the system. “I want to be as creatively disruptive as possible,” he says. “I want to be radically transparent in a way that isn’t showboating.”
He is writing a memoir and recently announced a deal with MTV to direct a documentary on what it means to be young and white in America.
Some longtime activists on immigration issues “want Jose to be even more disruptive, more confrontational,” says Gaby Pacheco, a veteran of the movement who has grown close to Vargas. “He would get pushback from kids who see him as privileged — he has a career, success, awards, famous friends.”
But Vargas is more comfortable viewing his activism as an art form or an act of journalism. With Ryan Eller, a Baptist preacher who heard Vargas speak at a college in Indiana, he runs Define American, a nonprofit group that pushes for more liberal immigration law.
“My job is taking the artistic brilliance of Jose Vargas, this unhinged willingness to do something that feels like jumping off a bridge, and use it to build support for immigrants,” says Eller. “Every day, we get requests to have Jose walk at the front of a march, join a boycott, get arrested at the Capitol. But that’s not who Jose is.”
Vargas’s split identity has won over many activists who initially worried that his approach was too soft. “People saw that he could get our message out in such sophisticated ways,” Pacheco says. “We’ve been preaching to the choir for so long, and Jose comes along and gets on ‘Colbert’ . . . and ‘O’Reilly’ and talks to white America. Because he is a prize-winning journalist, he has access that no immigrant had.”
Jose Vargas is hiding.
In high school in Mountain View, Calif., he did everything — choir, debate, plays, student government, newspaper.
Soon after he learned about his immigration problem, Vargas started keeping a list of the things he needed to do to be successful. He wanted to direct a show; make a movie; write for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post or New York Times. He wanted to win a journalism prize, cover a presidential campaign and, above all, be published in the New Yorker, which he’d discovered at the public library.
Before he turned 30, he’d done nearly everything on his list.
“That list was going to be the solution,” Vargas says. “But I did all those things, and it wasn’t better.”
He built his supercharged escalator to success with energy, smarts, creativity, deceit and outright lies. Beginning in high school, Vargas hid his immigration status from each of his employers as he rose through his profession, winning over editors who were hungry for young talent.
“We were behind the curve on all things digital and along came Jose,” says Peter Perl, a Washington Post editor who was in charge of hiring when Vargas was a summer intern in 2003. Vargas quickly established himself as an innovative, energetic reporter.
He was hired into a full-time position and became “the voice of youth in the newsroom,” Perl says. “He’s charming and charismatic.”
But within a year of arriving at The Post, Vargas, shaking and evidently troubled, approached Perl and asked him to walk over to Lafayette Park. On a bench there, Vargas told the editor what he had not told anyone at his previous jobs, what no one at The Post had detected — that, according to the law, he didn’t belong there.
“He was unburdening himself to a father figure,” Perl says. “He didn’t ask for anything.”
For seven years, Perl who has since retired from The Post, told Vargas’s secret to no one but his wife. (In 2011, when Vargas came clean, Perl was reprimanded, but he has no regrets about keeping silent to protect Vargas’s career.)
Some of Vargas’s colleagues saw in him a vital energy and a comfort with the digital world that eludes some veteran print journalists. But others felt suspicious or at least mystified.
“Jose is a man of so many layers, so many secrets,” says his friend and former roommate, Ernesto Londoño, a former Post reporter who now works at the New York Times. When Londoño, a native of Colombia, first came to The Post, the newspaper sponsored his application for a work permit and Londoño confided in Vargas about “how anxious I was and how this was a shaky way to start a career.” Vargas only listened.
After the two had been living together in the District for eight months, Londoño invited Vargas to travel to Colombia with him for a vacation. Vargas awkwardly demurred.
“I don’t like travel,” he said.
“I said, jokingly, ‘Are you not here legally?’ ” Londoño recalls.
Vargas remembers the moment: “Ernesto was about to make a left at the McDonald’s on U Street, and I heard myself lie. A week or so later, I moved out. I hated that I lied to him.”
Londoño recalls his roommate coming to him and saying, abruptly, “ ‘I can’t live with you anymore.’ He was very clearly overwhelmed.”
Secrets shaped his friendships and his work. In 2004, Vargas wrote a story in The Post’s Style section about spouses who kept big secrets from one another for years. “Secrets come in many forms,” he wrote, “from the trivial to the consequential. . . .”
At The Post, Vargas was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech. But to protect his secret, he turned down a chance to cover the war in Iraq. When he had to interview a State Department official, he panicked about being caught at the building’s security checkpoint; he called the source and asked, “Can we do the interview at Caribou [coffee shop]?”
He left The Post in 2009, worked at Huffington Post and in 2010, he landed the story that would tick off the last item on his high school list. He got Mark Zuckerberg to cooperate on a profile for the New Yorker. Vargas and the Facebook founder took a long walk in Menlo Park, Calif., “and Mark turns to me and says, ‘So where are you from?’ ” Vargas recalls. “I stopped and looked at him. The simple answer was I was from the town next to there. The full answer was, ‘I can’t talk to my mom. I’m interviewing you, and I’m not supposed to be here.’
“I didn’t say that. Instead, I gave him a blank look and continued the interview.”
In December 2010, the Senate voted down the Dream Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally as children. Vargas went out for a long walk to the Brooklyn Bridge, listening to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 — by turns delicate, melodramatic, overbearing. By the time he got back to his apartment, he says he knew he would end the lies. He hadn’t seen his mother in 16 years.
“It must seem strange that somebody who seems so social and friendly could keep secrets for so long,” Vargas told me. “I don’t know how the hell I managed it. The moment you tell someone, you feel guilty, because you’re endangering them. I was a coward. A ticking time bomb. Either someone was going to out me, or I would out myself, or I would have to shut the f--- up for the rest of my life.”
He set out to write a first-person piece for his old employer, this newspaper, in which he would come out as an illegal immigrant. The Post assigned a team of editors to check the story rigorously; a story about lies had to be airtight.
In the end, The Post’s editor at the time, Marcus Brauchli, decided not to publish the story. Vargas offered it to the New York Times, which put it on the cover of its Sunday magazine. Brauchli says he has nothing to add to his original explanation, which said: “We made a judgment not to run the piece.”
Vargas says he thinks The Post bailed out because he had a second illegally obtained driver’s license that he hadn’t mentioned in his first draft. But he says he was committed to telling all and gladly added any fact the editors wanted.
Some fellow journalists read the Times story and felt as if they’d been made unwitting parties to a lie.
“I was duped,” wrote Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, where Vargas had worked at the start of his career. “Jose lied to me and everyone else he worked for, and that’s not kosher.”
The Post’s ombudsman then, Patrick Pexton, wrote that Vargas had a reputation in the newsroom “for being tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless self-promoter whom many colleagues didn’t trust.” Pexton concluded that Vargas had now “crossed the line from journalist to advocate.”
The Times story would liberate Vargas from the constant elisions and deceptions, but not from life on the run. Soon after the piece appeared, Washington state revoked his driver’s license, which he had obtained illegally (he had never lived in the state). These days, he gets around by cadging rides from friends and supporters. He takes a lot of taxis.
When a student attending a speech at American University asks him where he lives now, he replies, “On Delta Air Lines.”
Jose Vargas is charming.
Wade, his friend since freshman year of high school, remembers coming home to find Vargas on her couch — he had a key to her house — watching videotapes of figure skater Michelle Kwan that her mother had recorded for Jose.
“He was really building a family for himself,” Wade says, “reaching out to adults to be mother figures.”
Pat Hyland, Vargas’s high school principal, first focused on him as he fell into crisis after coming out as gay in school, leading his grandfather to throw him out of the house. Now, as Vargas lived from couch to couch, walking five miles a day because he didn’t have money for a bus pass, the principal says she saw him survive “by making people around him feel like the center of the world.”
“His head tilts like a puppy, and he’s listening and asking good questions,” says Hyland, now dean of students at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. “At the same time, he had this constant, nagging sense that he was not good enough. He would constantly seek affirmation. That can get tedious. But he’s so inquisitive, so resourceful — and so fearful. If everything you’ve got about yourself is a secret, you’re pretty lonely.”
Vargas’s fellow interns watched as he impressed his editors. “He had a way to ingratiate himself to people in authority to stay afloat,” Londoño says. “It’s what he’s always done to survive. He has this huge desire to belong, because there was this big part of him that didn’t.”
Marcia Davis, who edited Vargas in the Style section and became a close friend, says some bosses mistook his fear about his fragile immigration status for being manipulative.
“He connects to a Don Graham, an Arianna Huffington, a Mark Zuckerberg, because he lives in a world of big ideas and he’s got the passion of a young person,” she says. “This idea of him being a self-promoter: I really think issues of race and class factored into people saying that about him. There’s anxiety in Jose, there’s self-doubt, and it can all be exhausting. But he’s passionate about telling stories, so full of wanting to get things done.”
Vargas arrives at American University to give a speech. Stopping by the student TV station, he checks his hair (“I learned early on that I can’t look like I’m stressed out,” he says), and then, when a young woman tells him he inspired her to open up about her undocumented status, he lowers his voice, tilts his head and spends 30 seconds with her as if there weren’t 11 other people in the room.
In a quiet moment between speeches, he says he collected parental figures — for a purpose.
“I traffic in empathy,” Vargas says. “I try to be vulnerable with people so they can be vulnerable back. I’ve always been searching for empathy in other people. It’s when I feel most not alone.”
Vargas is running, still. He came out as gay and still felt compelled to run. Came out as undocumented — still running. He finally admitted to himself that he has a mother (for years, he’d refused her request to be listed as his parent on Facebook, for fear that people would ask questions — “Do you miss her? Why don’t you go see her?” He kept a shoe box full of her letters, unopened). As yet, no rest.
Even now, he holds secrets, about things he did as a young man, about his family, about why he runs. In his mind, he keeps a catalogue of which friends he’s told which secrets. He’s not sure he remembers who knows what.
His hardest moment so far was reconnecting with his mother, Emelie Salinas. Vargas spent nearly three years working on his film, “Documented,” which ends with an extended passage about his first visit with his mother via Skype. (She has applied three times for a tourist visa to visit her son. She has been turned down each time.)
Footage of his mother did not appear in early cuts of the movie. Now, he sees, “she is the film. She’s this mother who put me on a plane. She and I meet on film.”
After he finally decided that the movie could not be fully honest without her, Vargas spent weeks working with the 10 hours of footage his crew brought back from the Philippines. As soon as he finished editing his mother into the film, he did something he’d thought about for a decade: He went to see a therapist.
“I’ve become a little more open in the past few months about depression,” he says.
These days, mother and son chat on Facebook from time to time. The conversation is not easy. The anger he felt toward her for sending him away has subsided, but there’s only so much he can repair from 7,000 miles away.
He remains afraid of the dark. He doesn’t sleep — just short bits here and there. He keeps no pictures of himself.
Vargas is forever coming out, revealing himself layer by layer, yet always holding something in reserve.
Londoño, his former roommate, came to believe that Vargas is a good man imprisoned by his silence. “His secrets came to dominate and poison every aspect of his life,” says Londoño, who remains on good terms with Vargas. “He could never let anybody get close. It kept him from having a real romantic relationship. He was lonely, hugely lonely.”
Vargas confirms he has never had a serious partner. “I just never really allowed that,” he says. “It would be unfair to impose that on someone else.”
In high school, after his grandfather kicked him out, he lived for a time with a middle-aged man he’d met at a coffee shop, his first steady relationship. He says the relationship was not abusive, but consensual and convenient.
“If he was taking advantage of me, I was also taking advantage of him,” Vargas says. “I had a place to sleep, right?”
He didn’t tell even his closest friends about the man. “I didn’t want them to know,” he says. “What am I supposed to do, tell them I’m sleeping with a man to have somewhere to sleep? That’s putting a lot on them.”
Even now, his old friend Nathalie Wade says: “Jose will come to a point where he pushes people away if somebody gets too close. It’s hard to let somebody love you when you don’t think as highly of yourself as you could.”
In his apartment, Vargas keeps a globe, a symbol of the places he wants to see someday.
Hyland, his high school principal, hopes Vargas will finally come to rest: “He’s on a race with no particular end. He thinks if he just talks to enough people, they’ll see the problem. That’s just not going to work. Does he have the energy to sustain the work without seeing progress? I don’t know. You begin to repeat yourself.”
She’s not optimistic that he can stop. “No one has the authority to tell him to take a timeout,” she says. “It would scare him.”
Wade sent Vargas a note after she saw his documentary. She said she understood now “why you are the way you are. Of course, someone with something to prove, someone who constantly needs to show that he belongs . . . would need to achieve, and surpass, and impress to no end. . . .
“You are constantly striving to find ways . . . to be loved by more and more people around you when the most important person, the one person who would make you feel whole again . . . is separated from you by such deep geographical, emotional and especially political lines.”
In every Skype conversation, his mother assures her son that he is worthy, good, accepted. In his movie, she tells the film crew he sent that “more than anything else, I want to be able to, like any mom, embrace my child, even without words. I just want to be able to hug him, like I did before.”
Her son wants the same thing, and now he believes it will happen. He called her on Skype after Obama’s speech. It was a short conversation with a simple message. “I’m going to try to see you,” he said, “and there would be no cameras. No, no, no, no, no.”