What Happened in Vegas with Vargas | Global News

What Happened in Vegas with Vargas

05:26 PM August 04, 2011

I had the chance to scoop the mainstream press almost three months ago with the story of the successful Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino reporter from the Washington Post who was voluntarily outing himself as an undocumented immigrant.  Of course everyone now knows of Jose Antonio Vargas but back then, virtually no one did. I had all the information I needed right in my fingertips ready to type into my laptop but I couldn’t. I gave my word.

I came upon the story while attending the Strategic Planning Conference of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) at the Bally Hotel in Las Vegas on May 13-15. At the end of the second full day of the conference, while we were dining at a Filipino restaurant in the city, my friend, JT Mallonga, an immigration lawyer from New York, invited me to stick around to meet a Pulitzer Prize winner who had flown in with him from New York.

I thought JT had only invited a few of us but when the time for the meeting came, I counted about 50 of us — half of the conference delegates — jammed around tables that had been joined together, waiting to meet and hear from JT’s guest.


JT Mallonga, the NaFFAA vice-chair and head of the Filipino American Legal Defense Fund (FALDEF) in New York, introduced his guest but surprised us all when he described him as his immigration client. Jose Antonio Vargas then stood up and apologized to us for not being familiar with NaFFAA or with other Filipino American community organizations.


At the outset, Jose confessed his trepidation that this large a group may not be able to keep in confidence what he would reveal about himself, despite JT’s assurances to him that we were all trustworthy.

Jose then proceeded to share with us his personal life story. He was born and raised in Antipolo, Rizal until the age of 12 when his single mother brought him to the airport to send him to California to live with his grandparents. That was the last time he saw his mother. Four years later, when he applied for a driver’s license while in high school in Mountain View, he learned for the first time that he was an “illegal alien”.

His beloved Lolo told him that he had obtained fake documents for Jose and hoped that he could someday find a way to legalize his status in the US, perhaps by getting married to a US citizen. Jose was crushed and shared this secret with a few trusted teachers and friends even as he pursued his education goals, obtaining a degree in Political Science at San Francisco State University.

While in college, Jose worked as a “copy boy” for the San Francisco Chronicle. He then interned for the Philadelphia Daily News and later at the Washington Post, which hired him in 2004 to cover the video-game boom.

At the Post, Jose gained recognition for his anecdotal coverage of the HIV epidemic in Washington DC, which was adapted into a documentary called The Other City. In 2007, as part of the Washington Post team covering the Virginia Tech shootings, he earned a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.

The Post saw in Jose a rising star and wanted to dispatch him to foreign posts where he could be seasoned. Jose declined the prized assignment without disclosing the real reason — he did not have a passport to go to Iraq or Afghanistan and return to the US. Instead, at his request, Jose was assigned to cover the 2008 presidential primaries of the Democrats and Republicans, traveling from Iowa to Florida, meeting and interviewing Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John MCCain and Sarah Palin, among other political candidates.


In July 2009, Jose left the Washington Post to join The Huffington Post where he was appointed Technology and Innovations Editor. As a part time freelance writer, Jose interviewed Al Gore and wrote a cover story for Rolling Stone magazine called “Citizen Gore” and also interviewed Mort Zuckerberg for a cover story in the New Yorker magazine entitled “The Face of Facebook.”

Ever since he learned of his illegal status, Jose has pinned his hope of legalizing his status on the DREAM Act (acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) which would provide conditional permanent residency to undocumented students of good moral character who graduate from US high schools, arrived in the US illegally as minors, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the act would “reduce deficits by about $1.4 billion over the 2011-2020 period and increase government revenues by $2.3 billion over the next 10 years.”

The Dream Act passed the House last December but, although garnering a majority of senators, fell three votes short of the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.

In that December push, three undocumented Latino college students from Texas traveled all the way to Washington DC to lobby for passage of the bill, personally risking deportation. It was an act of courage that inspired Jose to himself come out as an undocumented immigrant and openly lobby for passage of the Dream Act. He wanted to initiate a public conversation about immigration and what it is to be an American. He believes he is an American, except for his legal papers.

Jose was well aware of the risks of coming out. Aside from possibly being deported, he would certainly incur the ire of extreme rightists like the virulently anti-immigrant Michelle Malkin, the daughter of Philippine immigrants.

If Jose played it low-key and stayed under the radar, he could likely secure the sponsorship by a US senator of a private bill granting him legal status. Personally knowing Mort Zuckerberg, Paul Allen and other high tech Silicon Valley billionaires could prove useful if he was looking out only for himself.

But Jose realized that with his political connections and his ability to attract media coverage, he could provide a positive face and an articulate voice to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US living in the shadows perpetually in fear of being deported (“Tago Ng Tago” and “Takot Na Takot”).

Jose then asked us to withhold reporting about him until after his tell-all confession appeared in the Washington Post on June 6. We made that promise to him, all of us, NaFFAA delegates coming from New York to Miami, from Seattle to Honolulu, some of whom write regularly for Filipino community publications and virtually all of whom are on Facebook.

I was sure one of us would not be able to keep Jose’s secret for long. The mainstream’s scoop on Jose’s story would be spoiled and its impact great diminished if that happened.

As it turned out, Jose’s article, My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant, did not get published by the Washington Post on June 6 as he was initially assured by his former bosses. Apparently, they got cold feet and backed out. The Sunday New York Times quickly picked up the story and published it on June 22, 2011.

Predictably, Michelle Malkin blasted Jose and the New York Times right out of the gate: “With great fanfare and elite-media sympathy, José Antonio Vargas publicly declared himself an “undocumented immigrant” this week. “…In the felony-friendly pages of the New York Crimes — er, Times — the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist turned illegal-alien activist spilled the beans on all the illegal IDs he had amassed over the years. He had documents coming out of his ears. The Times featured full-color photos of Vargas’s fake-document trove — including a fake passport with a fake name, a fake green card, and a Social Security card his grandfather doctored for him at Kinko’s.”

As he had expected, after his article was published, Jose was invited to speak at numerous public forums and TV talk shows (CNN, The Colbert Report, Rachel Maddows, NPR, etc.) to discuss his case. As he had hoped, his article ignited renewed interest in the Dream Act. In fact, for the first time since the Dream Act was introduced in 2001, the US Senate conducted a hearing on the bill with Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), appearing as a witness alongside Jose Antonio Vargas.

What was not predictable was that 50 Filipinos hearing about Jose’s story from Jose himself on May 14, 2011 would keep his secret for six weeks. Simply incredible!

What happened in Vegas actually stayed in Vegas.

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TAGS: Dream Act, Immigration, Jose Antonio Vargas, Migration, NaFFAA, New York Times, US, Washington Post

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