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Prize-winning journalist drops bombshell

By Josh Richman
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011 at 7:05 pm in Immigration.

(This is a guest post from Matt O’Brien, who covers immigration issues for Bay Area News Group – East Bay.)

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who grew up in the Bay Area dropped a media bombshell this morning that took off with a brief post on his Twitter account.

“I am an undocumented immigrant,” announced Jose Antonio Vargas, a graduate of SF State and Mountain View High School who won the Pulitzer for his coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre for the Washington Post. Read about his saga, he added, in a gripping 4,600-word essay posted online this morning and to be printed in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

Vargas told of how his mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in Mountain View when he was a 12-year-old in 1993. It wasn’t until years later that he found out he was living in the United States illegally:

One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. “This is fake,” she whispered. “Don’t come back here again.”

Vargas also went public with his story in an emotional TV interview that will broadcast on ABC News tomorrow:

Another video on his newly launched “Define American” website (www.defineamerican.com) shows that this disclosure is designed to make a powerful statement in the country’s ongoing debate over illegal immigration:

Vargas isn’t the only journalist, or Pulitzer winner, for that matter, to have lived in the U.S. as an unauthorized immigrant. Orange Coast magazine reported earlier this year on the story of LA Times reporter Ruben Vives, part of the team that uncovered the Bell city government scandal and the son of a Guatemalan nanny who brought him across the border when he was a child.

But the Vargas story has caused more of a stir because the journalist is still at risk of deportation and has been in this situation throughout his career, which included early internships at The Mountain View Voice (which was unpaid) and the San Francisco Chronicle. The Seattle Times denied Vargas an internship because of his lack of proper documents, and he kept his status a secret from top managers at the Washington Post.

It was the Post that planned to publish the Vargas account first, but as Chris Suellentrop, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, explained in a blog post this afternoon, the DC paper killed the story days before it was due to run.

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