Washington — A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the Virginia Tech massacre for the Washington Post went public Wednesday with a secret he has been keeping for nearly two decades: He is an illegal immigrant.
Jose Antonio Vargas, whose mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in California when he was 12, says that now he wants to push Congress to pass a bill called the DREAM Act that would allow people like him to become citizens if they go to college or serve in the military.
“I’m done running. I’m exhausted,” Vargas wrote in a New York Times Magazine essay posted online Wednesday. “I don’t want that life anymore.”
Vargas referred a request for comment from The Associated Press to his public relations team, which did not immediately make him available Wednesday. He also spoke to ABC News in interviews that will air today and Friday.
He says he didn’t know about his citizenship status until four years after he arrived in the U.S., when he applied for a driver’s permit and handed a clerk his green card.
“This is fake,” a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk said, according to Vargas’ account. “Don’t come back here again.”
Vargas confronted his grandfather, who acknowledged he purchased the green card and other fake documents.
“I remember the very first instinct was, OK, that’s it, get rid of the accent,” Vargas told ABC. “Because I just thought to myself, you know, I couldn’t give anybody any reason to ever doubt that I’m an American.”
He convinced himself that if he worked hard enough and achieved enough, he would be rewarded with citizenship, Vargas wrote in the magazine piece.
His grandfather imagined the fake documents would help Vargas get low-wage jobs. College seemed out of reach, until Vargas told Mountain View High School Principal Pat Hyland and school district Superintendent Rich Fisher about his problem. They became mentors and surrogate parents, eventually finding a scholarship fund for high-achieving students that allowed him to attend San Francisco State University.
Vargas was hired for internships at The San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. He was denied an internship at The Seattle Times because he didn’t have all the documents they required. But he kept applying and got an offer from The Washington Post.
The newspaper required a driver’s license, so Vargas said his network of mentors helped him get one from Oregon, which has less stringent requirements than some other states.
Once hired full-time at the Post, he used the fake license to cover Washington events, including a state dinner at the White House, Vargas recalled.
He wrote that he was nearly paralyzed with anxiety that his secret would be found out at the Post. He tried to avoid reporting on immigration policy, but at times, it was impossible. At one point, he wrote about then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s position on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Vargas eventually told his mentor, Peter Perl, now the newspaper’s training director. Perl told him that once he had accomplished more, they would tell then-Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Post Chairman Don Graham together. They kept the secret until Vargas left the paper.
On Wednesday, Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti condemned their actions.
“What Jose did was wrong. What Peter did was wrong,” Coratti said, declining to comment further on personnel matters. “We are also reviewing our internal procedures, and we believe this was an isolated incident of deception.”