2013 / Jose Antonio Vargas
Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, filmmaker, and the founder of the immigration awareness organization Define American, is the 2013 recipient of The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.
In June 2011, against the advice of several immigration lawyers, he came out as an undocumented American in a stunning and groundbreaking essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” in the New York Times Magazine. In it, he revealed how he came to the United States from the Philippines as a 12-year-old boy to join his grandparents, both naturalized citizens, in California. At the age of 16, he discovered that his green card was fake when he went to the DMV to get a driver’s permit. The clerk examined his residency card and then whispered to him that it was a fake and that he shouldn’t come back again. After confronting his grandfather, who had purchased the green card and other documents for him, Vargas made a decision that he wrote about in his essay:
I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.
Vargas’ early journalism jobs were impressive and wide-ranging. He started with an internship at his local paper, the Mountain View Voice. There, he got his first paid news assignments. Vargas also co-edited his school newspaper. He worked part-time at the San Francisco Chronicle as a college freshman and landed an internship at the Philadelphia Daily News, covering a drive-by shooting and the wedding of the then-76ers star Allen Iverson.
In the summer of 2003, he won a coveted internship at the Washington Post, which required a driver’s license. After studying various states’ requirements, and with the help of sympathetic friends, he managed to establish the residency requirement for Oregon and got a license that would expire eight years later, on his 30th birthday, in February 2011. Vargas believed that eight years would be plenty of time to be professionally successful, and, hopefully, see the passage of immigration reform.
After he graduated, the Post offered him a full-time, two-year, paid internship, beginning in the summer of 2004. But this time, being in the thick of the immigration debate in the capital, working while undocumented was a secret he couldn’t bear alone. He confided in Peter Perl, his mentor from his first internship, who was now part of the paper’s management. Sitting on a bench across the street from the White House, Vargas confessed everything. Perl was shocked, but said Vargas had done the right thing. Vargas continued with his internship, and spent his first Thanksgiving in Washington with Perl’s family.
In the five years that followed, Vargas was promoted to staff writer at the Post, where he covered tech and video game culture, HIV/AIDS in the nation’s capital, and the 2008 presidential campaign. There, he was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. In 2007, Politico named him one of 50 Politicos to Watch. In 2009, he moved to New York to join the Huffington Post, where he worked for roughly a year as a senior contributing editor and launched the Technology and College sections. His 2006 series on HIV/AIDS in Washington, DC inspired a feature-length documentary, The Other City, which he co-produced and wrote. It had a world premiere at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. In 2010, he also landed a plum assignment — an exclusive profile of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg for a publication he had dreamed of writing for since he was a child, the New Yorker.
In all his time as a journalist, Vargas had avoided writing about immigration. But during the 2008 presidential campaign, while covering Senator Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama in New Mexico, Vargas desperately wanted to come clean. Kennedy’s brother, President John Kennedy, was the author of a 1986 book, A Nation of Immigrants, and the Senator himself was a long-time advocate of immigration rights and immigration reform. If anyone would understand, Kennedy would, Vargas felt. But he held his tongue.
Another time, during the 2008 Iowa caucuses, when Republican hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney were squaring off against each other, the subject of immigration came up. Both Huckabee and Romney were trying to position themselves as the most hardline on the issue. While Huckabee discussed immigration during a press conference that Vargas attended, Vargas wanted to raise his hand and tell the politicians, “I’m one of those ‘illegal immigrants’ you’re talking about.” But again he stayed silent.
The pressure to say something, however, was building. When he found out that he was part of the Washington Post team that had won a Pulitzer, terrified that the added scrutiny would jeopardize his secret, Vargas went to the bathroom and cried.
In 2010, Vargas began following news of a growing movement of DREAMers, undocumented young students who had begun “coming out” after a version of the DREAM Act was derailed in 2010. DREAM, an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, was first introduced in 2001 as a way to provide a path to legal residency to immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors and have since graduated from American high schools. After the bill’s 2010 defeat, student activists began publicly declaring themselves undocumented. Two college students walked into a Border Patrol office in Alabama and informed agents that they were in the country without the proper papers. Four DREAMers walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, DC, to raise awareness.
It was then that Vargas knew that he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “I had a lot of reasons” for telling the truth, he says. “I couldn’t keep going. No one was threatening to out me, and frankly, I never thought I’d make it as far as I did in my career. I could have kept on going. But I was tired of lying to people about my immigration status.”
And so he came out in the most public way that he could, with a long, personal, painfully honest essay in the New York Times Magazine. The piece stunned media and political circles, attracting worldwide coverage. For two weeks after, it was the most shared article on Google. For the first time, “undocumented immigrant” trended on Twitter. A year later, he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine with fellow undocumented immigrants as part of a follow-up cover story he wrote called “Not Legal, Not Leaving.” Shortly before its publication, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would no longer deport young undocumented residents who would qualify for the DREAM Act.
“I’d spent my whole adult life being afraid of being found out,” Vargas says, of the wake of the essay’s publication, “of not just being deported but of being found out. I was prepared for anything and everything to happen, including deportation.” Fortunately, that hasn’t happened — so far — and no immigration authorities have contacted him since 2011, though his is now a household name and he has told his story on national and international TV and radio programs, including Nightline, the O’Reilly Factor, and the Colbert Report.
Since he is not allowed to be employed, he has had to be financially independent ever since he came out about his undocumented status, and his driver’s license was revoked. His only piece of acceptable identification is a passport from the Philippines, where he was born.
In January 2013, he was asked to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It was nerve-wracking,” Vargas says, “one of the most stressful moments of my life, mostly because I didn’t want to let anyone down. Days and hours before the testimony, I received at least 200 messages (via Facebook, email, Twitter), mostly from undocumented people asking me not to forget them.”
Now, he says, that his is “just one story” among 11.5 million — the estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the United States — of which almost 400,000 were deported by the Immigrations, Customs and Enforcement agency in 2011. “It has to be bigger than me. How do we bring other people into the conversation?” To that end, he founded Define American, which aims to facilitate dialogue about immigration reform. He still gets “countless emails” from undocumented people and their allies every day.
The judges award the 2013 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling to Jose Antonio Vargas because, like Ron Ridenhour, he had a choice: to remain silent and safe or reveal his truth and risk sanctions. For Vargas those risks included the loss of a promising career and even deportation. In taking the latter course, he practiced the type of moral courage that Ridenhour Prize winners exemplify.
2013 Prize for Truth-Telling Speeches
GABY PACHECO: What an honor it is for me to be here among you all. And what an honor it is to receive this award on behalf of my good friend, Jose Antonio Vargas. We all have stories to tell, and some of the stories are harder than others. Eight years ago, I was in this same room telling my story to a roomful of reporters. And back in the day eight years ago, that was not the cool, sexy, or hot thing to do. However, I felt that it was needed. And since I was in high school, I started sharing my story because I knew that, one, I was not the only undocumented person in this country; and two, that by sharing my story I was going to empower other people but also find somebody, find people, that were going to be willing to help me to get to the next level.
Telling stories and telling the truth and shining light into the shadows and the lives that we live, it’s not necessarily easy. And those things come at a cost. For me, the cost was in 2006 when Immigration, Customs and Enforcement, came early one morning to look for me and detain me because here I was, an undocumented person making noise. And so as they approached the door, the person that opened the door was my sister. And both my parents and my sisters were detained by Immigration, Customs and Enforcement. And it was a huge price that I had to take, I never thought that, one, immigration was going to come after me. And two, that they were going to detain and take away from me the most precious things that I had in my life — my family.
But it was community and it was also me bargaining with them and saying that I was not going to talk to the media anymore, that I was not going to tell people my status, that bargaining that I had to kind of do because I continued to talk to the media. And as a matter of fact on Monday I testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee — [applause] — and I openly talked about my journey as an undocumented person, my family’s struggle and the need for immigration reform.
And it was in 2010 when my friend, Felipe Sosa Matos, and his partner, Juan Rodriguez, and Carlos Roa, we embarked on a 1,500 mile walk from Miami to Washington, DC to bring to light our stories. And it was through that journey that I had the opportunity to meet Jose Antonio Vargas. I met Jose in 2011 right before his article was about to be published in the New York Times. And he was inspired by the youth and the people coming out and saying that we were undocumented, unafraid and unashamed.
He is one of the persons that from this — I’ve been in this movement for ten years, and there hasn’t been one single person like Jose Antonio Vargas who has been able to bring this issue to where we’re at today. It is because of him and hundreds of other courageous people that have told his story that we are in the eve of having an immigration reform bill passed in the Senate. And I do believe that we’re going to get there and that President Obama will sign into law an immigration reform bill. [applause]
I really believe in the passion that Jose has to tell a story, and what a great asset that he’s a journalist. He’s an award-winning journalist who has been able to really capture the hearts and minds of so many. And so, his story to me, I know that has opened a lot of doors and I’m proud that he is my friend. Also proud and thankful for this award that is being given to him because I feel that it’s not just that we’re honoring him, but that we’re honoring the hundreds of young people, the hundreds of thousands of people that have come out of the shadows into the light.
And actually, there’s some among us that were able to be here. And if you could please stand, our fearless DREAMers. I know that we have one up in the balcony. [applause] And so in honoring Jose, you’re honoring all of us, you’re honoring your life and you’re moving the agenda forward. He couldn’t be with us today, he’s in San Diego, but he wanted to make sure that he sent a message to all of you, and his thanks. So, there’s supposed to be a video that’s going to come up. Thank you so much again, and it was a pleasure to be here and represent Jose. [applause]
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: [film] Hi, I’m Jose Antonio Vargas, I’m a journalist. I’m a filmmaker, and I’m the founder of Define American which seeks to elevate how we talk about immigration in a country founded and replenished by immigrants. I am incredibly grateful and honored and humbled to be receiving this award and I’m also incredibly sorry that I can’t be there with you today to accept it in person. I’m in San Diego, as you’re watching this, partly actually to visit the US-Mexico border at a time in which we’re talking about immigration and immigration reform is at the forefront of people’s consciousness, especially in Washington, DC. It’s important to remember that immigration is not only about the US-Mexico border and not only about border security.
I am a journalist. It’s been my identity for more than a decade of my life. I was born in the Philippines and I was sent to America by my mother to live with my grandparents. My mother wanted to give me a better life so she gave me up. I arrived in the United States in 1993 and loved it the moment I got here. Just the possibilities of America and the fact that America has room for someone like me and someone who looked like me and someone who talked like me and someone who wanted to learn all about America.
It wasn’t until I was 16 years old, four years later after arriving here, that I found out after going to the DMV to get my driver’s license, that I’m undocumented, that the papers that my grandfather, a naturalized American citizen had bought for me to get me here, the green card and the passport that he had purchased, were actually fake. I was 16, and it was 1997, four years before the DREAM Act was even introduced.
My saving grace, my salvation, was actually journalism. The following year when I was 17, my English teacher, Mrs. Dewar, said I was asking too many annoying questions and I should do this thing called journalism. And so she sent me to a journalism camp in San Francisco and I have to tell you for me, I wasn’t a good writer at all, my English wasn’t perfect, far from it, but the moment I saw my name on a piece of paper, the moment I say my byline in the newspaper, I thought it was a way of existing. I rationalized to myself, if I can’t be in this country because I don’t have the right kind of papers, what if I’m on the paper? I thought I could just write my way into America. I thought I could just write as many of these articles and be successful and earn my way into citizenship. At least that was my plan.
And for 12 years, that’s what I did, working for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Philadelphia Daily News, Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the New Yorker. I went as far as I thought I could. I made it even further than I thought I ever could. Living in Washington, DC, actually visiting places like the National Press Club, going to Capitol Hill to cover a press briefing, going to the White House to cover a state dinner, it was incredibly scary for me to be an undocumented person without legal papers and be living and working in Washington, DC.
But I made it. And I made it actually because of a man, a journalist for the Washington Post who started at the Washington Post the year I was born, 1981, a man named Peter Perl. And I actually dedicate, I partly dedicate this award to him. When I got to the Washington Post in 2004, I was freaking out. I thought I had the word “illegal” tattooed on my forehead. So I decided four months after arriving in Washington, DC that I was going to have to tell somebody and I told Peter Perl. I took him for a walk at Lafayette Park, sat him down and told him everything. And I expected him to say, “All right, we have to report you now.” Instead he said, “This is now our shared problem, keep going.”
And I wonder how many other Peter Perls are across the country doing that exact same thing for undocumented people like me? How many educators, coworkers, neighbors, friends, lovers, have done that to protect and to answer to a moral? There’s law and there’s what’s right, and Peter Perl decided to do what was right in his heart. And I’m forever grateful for him for that.
And I also dedicated this award to my dear friend, Gaby Pacheco and all the other undocumented young people who bravely and courageously came out to tell their stories long before I did. When I convinced the editor of Time magazine to let me pose on the cover with 35 other undocumented people on this cover last summer, Gaby Pacheco was actually the first phone call. She was the first person I called and said, “I got to get you to New York and you got to go do this with me.” And the headline is, “We’re Americans, just not legally.” And as Washington, as Capitol Hill, debates this historic immigration bill and as we debate what the future of our country is going to be like, and how we’re going to change our laws, I’m here to say to you that I am an American. I just don’t have the papers to show you.