Pulitzer Prize winner: I'm an illegal immigrant
Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 12.
June 22nd, 2011
01:29 PM ET

Pulitzer Prize winner: I'm an illegal immigrant

[Update 9:45 p.m. ET] - Turns out the New York Times only got the story after Jose Antonio Vargas' former employer, the Washington Post, turned it down. The Times, already set to go to print, "tore up the book" to get the story in, a Times blog post reports.

Jose Antonio Vargas has written many pieces that have put him in the spotlight - including  ones on the Virginia Tech shooting that made him a Pulitzer Prize winner. But perhaps his biggest piece yet may be the one that could put him in the most precarious position - his New York Times Magazine piece in which he explains and documents his life as an illegal immigrant.

"I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore," he writes in the personal essay. "So I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection. I’ve reached out to former bosses­ and employers and apologized for misleading them — a mix of humiliation and liberation coming with each disclosure."

He acknowledges what happens now is up in the air - he could end up being deported.

"I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story," he writes.

The article has sparked a discussion online about the decision for someone to come forward so publicly and say they were an illegal immigrant.

"We were delighted to run the piece, which we believe is an extremely provocative and well-written piece of journalism," a spokeswoman for the New York Times told CNN.

Vargas is telling his story as he ramps up an effort with the advocacy group he founded called Define American, which says "It's time to have a real conversation about immigration in our country."

And perhaps there is no way more real to begin that conversation than with Vargas detailing his own story and struggles along the way.

Vargas, who came from the Philippines when he was 12-years-old, has spent most of his life flying under the radar: Using false documents and Social Security numbers to try to make it by. He even once gave the Secret Service an illegally obtained Social Security number so he could attend a White House dinner.

Though he may be a Pulitzer Prize winner, his tale is similar to that of illegal immigrants of every stature in this country, one of living in fear of being found out at any time.

In the piece, he said the fear was constant. Vargas attempted to move forward in his professional career, working hard in several major newspapers around the country including The Washington Post, where he won his Pulitzer. He tells of the difficulties in trying to succeed at what he does so well, while trying to make sure that only key people knew about his status.

"I was trying to stand out in a highly competitive newsroom, yet I was terrified that if I stood out too much, I’d invite unwanted scrutiny," he writes.

Things became more difficult for Vargas when the e-Verify program became part of the vernacular in the legislature. The program, set up by the Department of Homeland Security, works with employers to check if prospective employers are legally eligible to work.

It wasn't until Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, which could have helped him and others who went to college or served in the military become citizens. And since he is a gay male, he also doesn't have the option of marrying an American citizen.

Finally he was tired, he said, of walking around with the question that had been posed to him after he won his Pulitzer: "What will happen if people find out?"

soundoff (1,573 Responses)
  1. Amy

    Just give him the fricken papers! Who cares that he is illegal. Is is smart, educated, hard working, tax paying individual and who knows what happened when he was 12 years old and was brought by his parent! Give him green card! Let's live and let other live!

    June 22, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
  2. CBR

    Doesn't anyone in this country realize that those who came and claimed North American areas for their governments gave rise to immigrants. The indigenous people owned this land and we took it away from them.

    i challenge people to look through the history of their families. See where relatives came from and see why they came to North America. Those who wished to escape from countries where the rulers treated them poorly, they were persecuted by others of they were denied their religious freedom, etc.

    June 22, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kaelinda

    It doesn't make the slightest particle of difference what country he's from. He's an ILLEGAL immigrant. What part of 'illegal' is so hard to understand? Maybe it's the part where 'illegal' exists only for aliens who do not have diplomatic immunity? Maybe it's the part where 'illegal' exists only for anyone who is not legislators in their particular city, county, or state?

    No, I never sped or ran a red light in my car, and I drove for over 20 years before my eyesight got so bad that I voluntarily stopped driving. (Didn't make the DMV decide for me.) There are a lot of laws I think are intrusive, that are written specifically for the benefit of large corporations (particularly insurance, oil, agricultural, and pharmaceutical companies), but I obey the laws even if they stink. I might protest, even actively demonstrate against them – but I obey them because of the social contract: I obey the law and the government tries (but not very hard) to protect me from murderers, thieves, muggers, con men, and other criminals. But not against illegal immigrants.

    June 22, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. tonyl

    When a person is 12 years old and breaks the law of entering the country illegally is not a crime. He is and has been more productive to this nation then a whole lot of Americans complaining about his status. It is human nature to lie for survival and better future. He is from southeast Asia and in that part of the world people have to lie all the time for survival. If our leaders and Presidents can lie to the nation about WMD to start wars and sacrifice thousands of lives for political reason, whats wrong with some illegal alien lies about able to live in this country? Get a life, fools.

    June 22, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • mmb

      Everyone lies, even here.

      June 26, 2011 at 4:46 am | Report abuse |

    Did he just say "we need to have a discussion about what immigration means to our country"???? OUR COUNTRY. Son, this is NOT your country. It's like a bank robber stealing a ton of cash and then saying it's his, or a kidnapper calling a stolen child their own. Just because you STOLE something, does not make it yours. That is not your social security number and this is not your country. You sicken me. I am voting on this issue alone in 2012.

    June 22, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • vera

      Just because he wasn't born here doesn't make it his country, he grew up in the US , therefore, it is his country.

      Just because you had foster parents who raised you doesn't mean that they are not your parents .

      June 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • natives

      Just because you stole it from natives doesn't make it yours either.

      June 22, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johnny B

      Did I miss something? What did this poor fella steal??? He keeps saying, "you stole, you stole" ... What did he steal??? Oh I know , he stole his own childhood and young adulthood by living a miserable life as an illegal (not his fault)

      June 22, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |

      1. He stole an American education; he stole the use of American citizenship and all its infrastructure; he stole many people's SSNs. Basically, he stole a whole life.
      2. The natives. Ok, I'm totally sick of this one. The natives had some land (which they did not sprout on; they crossed over the Bering Strait). They lost the land. This guy and his family did not come over here for land, as there is land in their own country. No, they came here for the lifestyle, the government and the resources of the United States of America.... none of which has anything to do with natives or land.
      3. Foster parents.... not exactly true analogy. this is more like if you hide in someone's basement long enough you get to start calling them your parents.

      June 22, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • mmb

      How old are you anyway? You sound immature.

      June 26, 2011 at 5:18 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jim Davis

    America is DOOMED to Economic Collapse because a growing number of people don't have to SMARTS to realize they are being played as CHUMPS. I cannot conceive how EVERY US CITIZEN cannot understand that if you let your Safe UNLOCKED, People will take ALL YOUR GOLD ! Why do u suppose we have LAWS in the First Place ?? Can u imagine how driving would be if the Police would NOT enforce the Laws???? PEOPLE who want to allow the breaking of OUR LAWS are giving away not only MY Tax $$$ but their own as well, and I guess won't understand it till they HAVE NOTHING LEFT AT ALL.... AND THEN IT WILL BE TOO
    LATE. THANX ALOT FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION TO OUR OWN CHILDREN'S FUTURES. Just give it all away so we can one Big Happy Family....

    June 22, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • sdencar

      Thanks, Jim, for your POST!! But I MUST confess I DIDN'T read all u wrote because you can't spell "you", U use caps in inappropriate PLACES and you use WAY too MANY question marks AND ellipses. Please LEARN to spell and USE grammar. You'll NEVER get the PULITZER prize at THAT rate.

      June 22, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. vera

    OK There are bigger problems in the world than trying to deport a talented young man who is trying to reach his true potential !!!

    By the way illegals do pay taxes , with the hope that one day they might become citizens, as a matter of fact they pay billions , read for yourself this and many other articles are written how illegal immigration is benefiting the economy and not vice versa. Only truly uneducated people scream "deport" ! Please read this article

    June 22, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Insane G. I.

      Illegals pay taxes?? How? Oh yeah on a STOLEN ID, which means that when some honest tax paying citizen goes to retire, they can't collect their SS because of a problem. Current laws do not all SS to contact any payee on a discrepancy, wrong name on the ID. The legal owner of the Social Security ID, would then have to hire a lawyer and prove that they weren't working where the other monies came from.

      Then there is also the government that goes after the legal SS ID owner for full taxes due on the monies, I know it's hard to believe but illegals don't always pay the correct amount in taxes, they claim more dependants than they actually have, mi mama, she is sick and taking care of mi 12 bambinos, blah blah blah.

      So to recap, there are no ILLEGALS that LEGALLY pay taxes, all they do is cause strife and expenses that accrue when the LEGAL owner has to clear their name. So quit with the lies already.

      June 22, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vera

      You have know idea what you talking about, do some reading my dear!

      June 22, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |

      Vera... besides the taxes they pay on stolen SSNs, do those articles mention anything about the cost of the surging illegal alien population in terms of strain on education, infrastructure, benefits and services? the silence is deafening. I'm sure the cost to benefit ratio will explain why so many educated people are screaming CHARGE & DEPORT THE WHOLE FAMILY AND CHANGE THE 14TH AMENDMENT NOW

      June 22, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • vera

      I agree that there are foreign nationals who do take advantage of the loopholes in the system and do get certain benefits. And trust me I am not in favor of that either. But they are people and majority of them work really hard to get the better living. And not every illegal has stolen a social security number and yes, they do pay taxes , lets not forget that. Bottom line- the laws need to be changed that there wouldn't be such holes in the system.

      However, in this case we are talking about a young man who is trying to live his life and achieve something, he does not have 5 children and he isn't on food stamps, and I am guessing he did pay his taxes. So what's the big deal ???

      June 23, 2011 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
  8. Rick

    Leave, just leave ! NOW !

    June 22, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Zumba

    How many of you here lived in a poor country for more than a week? How did you like it??? I am not saying that all the worlds poor should move to the US now, but if you grew up in this country, were a model citizen (no stealing, drunk driving, selling drugs, and other crap, yeah , I am talking to you pot smokers:)))) , worked hard and have a drive to make a man/ woman of yourself, you should be allowed to pay a fine of $10 K lets say, and then BE ALLOWED to fix your status. Why? Because you are human and you deserve it .And you work really hard.

    Think about it ! Estimated number of illegals 11 million if we could legalize them we would collect 11 billion dollars. Well, that's a good chunk of change isn't it . Now, we could build our borders and the good part so called "illegals" would pay for it. I think that would be fair!!!

    Well but there is the other side ,,, it is useful for some interested parties to keep these poor people as illegals , why? Cheap labor, don't have to promise anything ,,,, very convienient...

    June 22, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      That'd be $110 billion, not $11 billion.

      June 23, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
    • zumba

      @ Dave
      Thanks, even better

      June 23, 2011 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |

    SOME LAWS CAN BE UNJUST! And they need to be changed

    June 22, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
  11. kelvin

    I am sick of listening to smart educated people who just think about them self. Did he payed taxes ask your self that
    and if you get rid of immigrant in this country who will do the farming and it will be a disaster so start thinking twice not
    once all you think is about your self it is immigrant who bill this country there is ways to do things not just help your self
    and if you pray you will know not to hate.

    June 22, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Phil

    Just as a refresher, here is the definition information for the word "illegal" as according to dictionary.com.

    " illegal – il·le·gal [ih-lee-guhl]

    — adjective
    1. forbidden by law; unlawful; illicit
    2. unauthorized or prohibited by a code of official or accepted rules

    — noun
    3. a person who has entered or attempted to enter a country illegally

    1. unlawful; illegitimate; illicit; unlicensed. Illegal, unlawful, illegitimate, illicit, criminal can all describe actions not in accord with law. Illegal refers most specifically to violations of statutes or, in organized athletics, codified rules: an illegal seizure of property; an illegal block ( in football ). Unlawful means not sanctioned by or according to law: an unlawful claim to the inheritance; to take unlawful advantage of the trading situation. Illegitimate means lacking legal or traditional right or rights: an illegitimate child; illegitimate use of privileged knowledge. Illicit, which originally meant simply “not permitted,” now most often applies to matters regulated by law with specific emphasis on the way things are carried out: illicit conversion of property; an illicit attempt to control the market. Criminal most often refers to violation of the statutes of penal as opposed to civil law. All felonies are criminal as are all crimes sometimes punishable by death such as murder, arson, and kidnapping: a criminal act."

    The issue is not about race, nor about how talented (or opportunistic) of a writer Mr. Vargas is, but of the U.S. being a nation founded upon the rule of law. Also, it's important to remember that Mr. Vargas' success as an individual is the exception and not the norm for illegal immigrants. In general, people who immigrate to the U.S. illegally have fewer protections under the law since they have to remain "under the radar," which has, in effect, created a sort of lower caste within American society. Because of this, several illegal immigrants have to settle for substandard living and deplorable working conditions, all the while barely eking out an existence, which hardly amounts to "the American dream." So, illegal immigration is not only bad for the U.S. economy and its citizenship, but it can also be bad for those who do it since they do not qualify for equal protection under the law.

    June 22, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |

      So the question is what do we do about it?

      June 22, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. illegal? What? haha funny!

    Really illegal???? So are we!! Don't worry because our founding fathers were illegal immigrants too! If being a illegal immigrant here makes you a criminal, Native American Indians should have deported all those sorry butts immigrants that came here in the first place. Should have shot that viking explorer who discovered this land! Ah who can forget the text book history BS fed by USA universities and governments, christopher columbus. They should have poisoned him and his crew's drinks with toxic and dump the bodies in the ocean and tell the other Native Americans Indians tribes who witnessed the murder to treat it as a Illegal immigrant deportation ritual. The ancient INS agency! I believe it was one of there protocol procedures when dealing with illegal immigrants inscribed in stone. Archaeological groups couldn't tell you what was written on the stone, because they are FUNDED by the USA government and universities. I get the feeling cnn will delete this soon hahaha!

    June 22, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |

      I have feeling you are in middle school.

      June 23, 2011 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
    • what? haha funny

      I have a feeling you are an old bitter fart, who hates his life and everyone else around him. Funny

      June 23, 2011 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
  14. Pete

    Both sides of my family immigrated to the US after the world wars. They waited their turn, suffered while they waited and were finally granted visas and citizenships. I was in middle school after my Father became a US citizen, after many years and being drafted by the US Army. They had to wait for the benefits and the opportunity legally.

    Why are you or your families better than mine? Why should you be treated to a special access without having followed the procedure? Why do you demand it all and my family complied with the system?

    Which part of ILLEGAL do you not understand? Illegals, criminals, cheats and liars are not welcome to share the benefits of US Citizenship. Deportation, not amnesty is the proper answer.

    June 23, 2011 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
    • what

      Pete, times have changed...Haven't you noticed? It is not so simple anymore.... You can't just stand in line and be granted a citizenship you know , there are laws to be obeyed and if they were just like in your father's times we wouldn't be discussing this issue. Don't forget that! People don't become illegals because they want to "cut the line" , its because they don't see another choice. As a matter of fact , it kicks them out of the line completely (unless you marry) , but they are willing to take the risk because they some have no choice in immigrating legally, only dreams for a better life. But you wouldn't understand that because you were given everything on the silver platter. Enjoy! cheers!

      June 23, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Pete

      Yeah, I won the genetic lottery and was fortunate enough to be born a poor kid in Detroit instead of in Frankfurt. But it's not enough for me. I want wealth and prosperity and free University and free money from the government. I want to be a citizen of a wealthy oil nation, or even better, I demand to be an aristocrat. It's my right according to your 'logic'. My greed and demands for more are therefore my right according to your logic. My greed legitimizes that it is my right to be a member of a wealthy oil country and an aristocrat and it is therefore justified by any means.

      It is possible to be granted legal residence. There is a choice and the possibility to immigrate, it is not, however, anybodies right, regardless of their situation. Your argument is a non sequitor.

      June 23, 2011 at 2:15 am | Report abuse |
  15. Grateful American

    Amazing. If one were to judge from the comments under this article, they could conclude that the US is primarily populated by ignorant, illiterate, hateful fools who keep spouting the same tired rhetoric while refusing to actually educate themselves about the process of seeking US permanent residency, the reality of illegal immigrants' activity in the US, and the need for immigrants in our economy. A person would conclude that the citizens of the US are so uneducated that they would prefer to "kick out" exemplary people who have shown the world exactly what it is to be a hardworking, educated, tax-paying, law-abiding member of society, simply because of some pieces of paper. It would seem that these same US citizens who so glorify the "rule of law" are unable to acknowledge that if that law were written to include those who have made the country a better place, we would not be hearing these tired "Illegal is illegal is illegal and what don't you understand about that" rants anymore because we'd all have moved on to making our country a better place under the law.

    I'm grateful that my beloved US is actually populated by people who are much wiser than most of the commenters here. And I'm grateful that one of these days, that wisdom will prevail and the US will continue to shine as an example of justice and progress.

    June 23, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
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