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This Land Is Your Land

Published on Thu, Aug 25, 2011

Jose Antonio Vargas came out of his first closet in high school when he told his classmates and family he was gay.

He came out of his second closet this summer, when he told the world he is an undocumented immigrant.

In his surprising, touching and much talked about New York Times essay, Vargas tells his story of being sent to America from the Philippines by his mother to live with his grandparents. Twelve-years-old when he arrived, it wasn't until he was 16 that he discovered he'd entered the country illegally.

Now 30, Vargas has built the kind of career a young reporter dreams of, much of it during his time at The Washington Post — covering the intersection of politics and technology in the 2008 presidential campaign; crafting a year-long series on AIDS in D.C. that was later adapted into the documentary The Other City; sharing a Pulitzer Prize with the Post team that covered the Virginia Tech massacre. During all that time, he was living with a secret that had the potential to end his career.

Reporting on himself — sifting through the history of his family and journey — hasn't been easy.

''I had to get it right,'' says Vargas. ''I only had one shot to tell this story and I had to tell it right, I had to be really accurate, or else people were just going to start picking holes in it.''

The story itself became a story when the news broke that The Washington Post had spiked the essay at the last minute. While the Times immediately picked up the piece, Washington's media class chewed over the question of why the Post had backed off. Slate media critic Jack Shafer dismissed Vargas's time in the immigration closet as a ''con.'' Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton wrote that Vargas had a reputation as ''a relentless self-promoter.'' Many others leapt to Vargas's defense, hailing his coming-out story as a watershed moment in the debate over immigration in America.

Despite the initial flurry of inside-journalism stories, Vargas has kept his focus on moving that debate forward, in large part through the launch of Define American, a new organization he co-founded to help elevate and change the discussion on immigration and the nation's 11 million undocumented persons. While the DREAM Act — the proposed legislation that would provide a path to citizenship to undocumented youth who, like Vargas, have lived their lives as Americans — remains a priority, and the Obama administration's recent announcement on immigration enforcement has been greeted as a needed, though limited, victory, Define American is as much focused on American citizens.

Because without those citizens, Vargas may never have been able to reach his own dreams.

''It sounds really crazy, but ever since I found I was undocumented I tried to very honestly live with this lie,'' he says, recalling how almost every person he came out to during his journey responded not with condemnation or rejection, but with offers of support and help. ''The American citizens, they're the ones who are my support network, my underground railroad…. I have been the beneficiary of such generosity from people, it's unbelievable.''


VARGAS: We are right now in such a political deadlock on the DREAM Act. There's only so much that this president can do — some can say that he hasn't done enough, and a part of me agrees with that. But at the end of the day there are three branches of government. And this Congress, especially the Republicans in Congress, haven't been willing to play ball. So more than talking about any specific policy point, we're trying to reframe the conversation.

When did we get to the point in this country that somebody who was born here as a first-generation American is an ''anchor baby''? When did we start thinking that immigrants are taking away and not adding to our country? Why is the perception that undocumented people are taking a slice from the pie, when really they're making the pie a lot bigger? The Immigration Policy Center [found that] undocumented people last year paid $11 billion in state and local taxes. How come we never hear about that figure?"

Published in the Metro Weekly | Read Article