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.

It's easy to portray Vargas—a self-described hard worker and American dreamer—as a victim of the system. As my colleague Alex Massie put it on Twitter this afternoon in response to my critical tweets, "But what was Vargas supposed to do? Pick fruit for the rest of his life?" No, I wouldn't sentence anybody to a life of fruit-picking, and yes, he and other illegal aliens are sympathetic characters. But Vargas' truth-telling about his lies, which included an extensive sit-down with ABC News, deserves additional scrutiny before any of the former bosses and employers he has "reached out to" with apologies "for misleading them" accept them.

Like Janet Cooke, Vargas lied about who he was.  Cooke would never have gotten her job at the Washington Post,  would never have written "Jimmy's World," would never have won a Pulitzer Prize if she hadn't misrepresented herself on her résumé as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar. * It may be unjust that Cooke, a black woman and a good writer, couldn't have made the jump to the then-Ivy-centric Post at the age of 25 if she had been honest about her humble University of Toledo undergraduate degree. But the unjustness of the world didn't give her a license to lie to the Post, where she eventually told many more. Likewise, Vargas would never have been hired by the Post had he told the paper the truth about his immigration status. I know the two lies aren't exactly analogous. Cooke told her lies to inflate her status, Vargas to normalize his. But the fact that Vargas lied about his noncompliance with what I (and others) consider to be an unjust law cannot be waved off. The trouble with habitual liars, and Vargas confesses to having told lie after lie to protect himself from deportation, is that they tend to get too good at it. Lying becomes reflex. And a confessed liar is not somebody you want working on your newspaper.

Oh, I expect to be denounced as a prig for that last paragraph. Like you've never told a lie? Never fudged your taxes? Never constructed a drunken alibi? Told a whopper? Stolen a candy bar? Of course I have. But have I lied systemically to my journalistic bosses? Nope. I don't come by my honesty policy because I'm virtuous by nature. I'm not. I'm honest because I know that if you violate your editor's trust, you're a goner for good reason. (Also, I'm a terrible liar who can't keep his lies straight.)

Vargas tells ABC News that he's chosen to come out as an illegal immigrant to help fight for passage of the DREAM Act, which would extend legal residency to deportable immigrants who came to the United States as minors, as he did. I wish Vargas and his campaign good luck. But to uncloud the issue one last time, we need to uncouple Vargas' cause from what he has done. He writes in his Times piece of being weary of "running away from who I am," but after reading his feature and the various news treatments of his story, I have no confidence of who that really is.

******

Lies and journalism don't mix. Send your clashing word cocktails to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and drink deep and taste not from my Twitter stream. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For email notification of errors in this specific column, type Vargas in the subject head of an email message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, June 23, 2011: This article originally misspelled Jimmy in the name of Janet Cooke's infamous article. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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