For almost 14 years, Jose Antonio Vargas carried a secret. A journalist skilled in getting information from others, Vargas withheld some important news from his American employers: He is an undocumented immigrant.
A native of the Philippines, he immigrated to the United States as a child and never established legal status, even after he discovered his uncertain standing when he applied for a driver’s license as a teenager in California. He kept the secret while employed with a series of news organizations, including The Washington Post, where he worked with distinction, becoming part of a team of reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.
He went on to work for the Huffington Post and landed an exclusive interview in September with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that was published by the New Yorker.
This week, Vargas, 30, revealed his personal story in perhaps the most public way possible — via a 4,000-word account of his deception in the New York Times Sunday magazine and a companion interview with ABC News.
“Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country,” he wrote. “On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.
“But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out.”
Vargas said he was putting himself at risk of potential deportation by publicly acknowledging his illegal status because it was important to highlight the plight of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Vargas, who has started an advocacy group, Define American, is promoting passage of the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would grant permanent residency to young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as minors.
Until last week, Vargas’s article was scheduled to run in The Post’s Outlook section.
Vargas approached his old newspaper in March with the idea of writing a personal account of his immigration and work history. The story underwent multiple drafts and was on the verge of being published Sunday. The newspaper sent a photographer, Bonnie Jo Mount, to New York to take pictures of Vargas to accompany his piece.
But Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli killed the story several days before it was scheduled to be published. “We made a considered judgment not to publish the story,” Brauchli said Wednesday. “We knew Jose would take his story elsewhere, and we’re not surprised he found a venue for his interesting account.”
Brauchli declined to discuss the reasons for spiking Vargas’s article.
Given the subject — a reporter’s dishonesty about his personal life — The Post subjected Vargas’s story to an unusual degree of scrutiny. One red flag popped up during weeks of checking: Vargas hadn’t disclosed that he had replaced his expired Oregon driver’s license with a new one issued by Washington state (the license had enabled Vargas to pass airport security and to travel to distant work assignments). Vargas later conceded that he had withheld the information on the advice of his attorney. The disclosure set off internal discussion about whether the newspaper was getting the full story from its former reporter.
In a brief interview Wednesday, Vargas declined to discuss the matter. “I made a decision that I wouldn’t get into [discussing details about the story] at the end of the day,” he said. “I wanted The Post to run the story. They had to do what they had to do and so did I.”
Vargas then contacted editors at the New York Times magazine. The newspaper found his story so compelling after seeing a copy Wednesday, just 48 hours before the magazine’s June 26 issue was to close, that its editors decided to rush the article into print.
This gave the story a singular distinction: It may be the first published by the New York Times that was developed, fact-checked and substantially edited by editors at The Washington Post.
Vargas reveals that he disclosed his secret to one editor at The Post, Peter Perl. The assistant managing editor of newsroom personnel was, at the time, Vargas’s professional mentor. Perl, however, did not share this information with his superiors. He declined to comment Wednesday.
In an official statement, Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said of Vargas’s employment at the paper: “We will not comment on individual personnel matters out of respect for the privacy of our employees.”