Living the Story: Undocumented Pulitzer-Winning Journalist Pushes Reform

Kari Lydersen

Former Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jose Antonio Vargas speaks at a July 2011 event in San Francisco.

NORMAN, OKLA. — This time last year, at age 30, Jose Antonio Vargas had achieved what most journalists only dream of: a Pulitzer Prize, a sheath of impressive clips from his job at The Washington Post, a lengthy profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker and bylines and assignments from Rolling Stone and other prominent media outlets.

Today, he struggles to make a living.

That’s not because of any decline in his talents or work ethic, or even the general chaos in the media industry. It’s because he is an undocumented immigrant, and chose to reveal the fact in a very public way last summer with a story in The New York Times magazine. As detailed in that piece, his mother sent him to the United States from the Philippines as a child; he was raised by his grandparents and didn’t learn he was undocumented until he tried to get a drivers license, at which point he entered a new world wherein deception and reliance on generous confidantes were key to pursuing his goals despite his secret.

Speaking to journalists with The Institute for Justice and Journalism at a conference at the University of Oklahoma this week, Vargas explained that since his coming out” as undocumented, he is not legally able to be employed. Of course, almost 12 million people in the United States are undocumented, and most of them are employed — using fake Social Security numbers, working under the table or other situations. But given the high-profile nature of Vargas’s revelation, it’s unlikely any employer who knows how to use Google would hire him.

But Vargas has not been sitting home twiddling his thumbs since revealing that he is undocumented and hence legally unemployable. He has been working harder than ever, traveling the country and doing 60 talks in 10 months in his bid to expand and facilitate dialogue around immigration and specifically what it means to be American.

He founded a nonprofit organization called Define American that could be described as an advocacy journalism and citizen journalism outlet, though he says he does not see himself as an advocate but simply a truth-teller who happens to be a character in one of the most important larger stories of our time.

Among other things, Define American has produced videos and other dispatches from Alabama — where a new anti-immigrant law is blamed for causing an exodus of workers and endangering the state economy. 

Unable to work for anyone, along with founding the nonprofit Vargas is exploring entrepreneurship and continuing his journalistic career by writing for various publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times Sunday Book Review and the US Guardian as an independent contractor.

Coming out about my undocumented status has forced me to really be creative and entrepreneurial,” he told me.

Which gets to a point that may surprise many Americans: While it is illegal to hire an undocumented immigrant, there are no federal laws prohibiting an undocumented person from working or being hired as an independent contractor, or from owning their own business or running their own nonprofit. (State laws and institutional policies may still impact these pursuits.)

Vargas’s employment situation can be seen as a symbol of just how schizophrenic —or, as many say, broken” — the U.S.’s current immigration system is. Entering the U.S. without permission and staying is a (misdemeanor) crime, as is hiring undocumented workers.

And yet it is not illegal for an undocumented person to do that most American of things — become an entrepreneur by starting a small busines — or earn a living as an independent contractor surviving by their skills and wits, just as generations of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, England and other countries did more than a century ago.

Vargas told me that earning enough to pay his bills is a struggle today, even with a hectic schedule that leaves him little personal free time. That’s in part because he is living his version of the American dream, which also harkens back to the dream of many generations past: living in lower Manhattan.

There is little doubt Vargas will ultimately have a secure future financially and otherwise here, if the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) does not deport him. Along with his journalistic success, he has become something of a celebrity since his piece last summer. He is a funny, engaging and dynamic speaker and award-winning documentary and multi-media producer.

In contrast, many undocumented immigrants have all the drive, work ethic and passion of Vargas but face far more uncertain circumstances. Increasing use of eVerify, crackdowns on employers of undocumented immigrants, anti-immigrant state laws and other enforcement measures could easily decrease their chances for actual employment. Starting a business or working as an independent contractor could remain a legal option, but not necessarily a viable one for many whose language skills, educational backgrounds, social networks or family situations leave them fewer opportunities than Vargas has.

That’s why, Vargas and other proponents of immigration reform say, the system must be fixed so that people can openly utilize their talents and fully contribute — out of the shadows, and without shame — to making this country the diverse melting pot driven by creativity, motivation and innovation that it has always claimed to be.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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