Jose Antonio Vargas comes out as an illegal immigrant. But that's just the beginning of the story.

Media criticism.
June 23 2011 10:50 AM

Who Is Jose Antonio Vargas?

A prominent journalist comes out as an illegal immigrant, raising additional questions about his real identity.

Jose Antonio Vargas. Click image to expand.
Jose Antonio Vargas 

A prefatory note before I join the Jose Antonio Vargas commentary: I am an immigration dove, to pluck a pungent phrase from today's Twitter-stream. No, make that a flock of immigration doves. I believe in open borders and detest our current laws and their enforcement.

I offer my immigration views not to indemnify myself but to change the subject raised by Vargas in his confessional essay, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," now on the Web and to be published in the June 26 New York Times Magazine. Vargas wants his former employers to forgive the many lies he told them to stay and work in this country illegally. But readers should table any forgiveness until they think through the full dimension of his deceptions.

In the Times piece, Vargas sketches his life story: In 1993, as the age of 12, he was sent by his mother from his native Philippines to visit his grandparents—naturalized American citizens—in California. He stayed and didn't learn that his green card was counterfeit until he was 16, after the DMV rejected it when he presented it as a legal ID in a driver's permit application. For the past 14 years, during which he's collected a college degree, interned at several newspapers, worked on the staff at the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, and written a profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker, Vargas continued his con.

Vargas describes himself as "exhausted" with living a life on the run, of lying to people who trusted him. According to the June 23 Washington Post, the Vargas article began as a freelance piece for the Post Outlook section but then got the spike from Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli just days before it was scheduled to run. Brauchli declined to explain why he killed the piece, but in a telling passage, the Post reports:

Given the subject—a reporter's dishonesty about his personal life—the Post subjected Vargas's story to an unusual degree of scrutiny. One red flag popped up during weeks of checking: Vargas hadn't disclosed that he had replaced his expired Oregon driver's license with a new one issued by Washington state (the license had enabled Vargas to pass airport security and to travel to distant work assignments). Vargas later conceded that he had withheld the information on the advice of his attorney. The disclosure set off internal discussion about whether the newspaper was getting the full story from its former reporter.

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To translate, the Post wasn't sure about the new truths that Vargas was telling about his old lies. This inconsistency invites further speculation about what else he wasn't forthcoming about. There's something about this guy to make a journalist's nose itch.

For even casual readers of immigration stories, Vargas' saga will ring familiar. It's not exactly breaking news that the 11 million undocumented people who rely on bogus identity documents to live here illegally must tell lies almost daily. So what's unique about the Vargas story is not that he lied or engaged other people in his fraud but whom he told his lies to: the Washington Post and presumably the Huffington Post, where he was on staff.

I get on my high horse about Vargas' lies because reporter-editor relationships are based on trust. A news organization can't function if editors must constantly cross-examine their reporters in search of deliberate lies. I'm more disturbed with Vargas for lying to the Washington Post Co. (which—disclosure alert!—employs me) than I am about him breaking immigration law. His lies to the Post violated the compact that makes journalism possible. It also may have put the company on the hook for violating immigration law [PDF], which slaps employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants with legal sanctions and fines. This may be the case in the Vargas episode: In his story, he writes of telling one Post manager about his immigration status, and that manager, Peter Perl, took no action.

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