Mountain View's Vargas: America's most famous undocumented immigrant


Following his startling personal story in The New York Times magazine, Mountain View's Pulitzer Prize-winner Jose Antonio Vargas has apparently pulled off the impossible over the last few weeks, starting a fresh conversation on radio and television about immigration in the U.S.

Vargas' story has now been widely told. Vargas was brought from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the U.S. by a coyote posing as his uncle at age 13, and he has not seen his mother since. He realized his situation only when his fake green card was rejected when he tried to get a driver's license in high school. He has admitted to using fake documents to obtain jobs at the country's top newspapers.

Vargas met with the Mountain View Voice on Monday (July 11) before his sold-out talk at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, and discussed what has happened over the last few weeks.

A former Mountain View High School student and Voice intern, Vargas, has put his face on the nation's immigration conversation in appearances on CNN, Fox News, NPR and Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show. He was scheduled to appear on the Colbert Report on Thursday, after the Voice went to press.

Everything was going well for Vargas before he revealed his immigration status. He had recently interviewed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker and had written 600 articles for the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, including one about the Virginia Tech massacre for which he shared a Pulitzer.

"All you can really do is live as honestly as you can," Vargas said. "That's what I'm doing. That's what's in it for me. Walking away from The New York Times building on Eighth Avenue, knowing the article was closed, I just started skipping around. People probably thought I was nuts. I can't even describe to you the feeling of liberation."

"I have so internalized all of this and I have, like, blocked it in the corner of my mind," Vargas said. "Once I unlocked it in my head, it's almost as if I've been getting to know myself in a completely different way. I had gotten lost in telling other people's stories; it's all I've ever done."

Vargas has received no indication from authorities about whether he may be deported soon, but he has a team of volunteer lawyers who are "ready for anything and everything that could happen. I'm not driving anymore. I can't be jaywalking. I just have to be careful."


By the time he spoke with a lawyer, it was too late. "I checked boxes I wasn't supposed to check," on employment applications, Vargas said, explaining why he would have difficulty applying for citizenship in the U.S. It was recommended that he move back to the Philippines for 10 years before coming back to apply again. His mentors advised against that, including former Mountain View High School superintendent Rich Fisher, who told him "keep going," Vargas recalls. "If he would have said, 'leave,' I would have done it."

Similarly, Peter Pearl, an editor at the Washington Post who knew about his situation, decided to support Vargas rather than report him. "If he would have told me 'We have to report you now,' I would have said, 'Okay,'" Vargas said. "I am really indebted to these American citizens who decided to help me out."

Vargas said last year he briefly considered quietly moving to Canada to obtain citizenship there. Instead, he invited friends and family from around the country to an Indian restaurant in San Francisco for his 30th birthday party, where it was made clear that his next big move might get him deported.

"Everybody was worried," Vargas said. "But I got to a place in my head where I couldn't not do it."

His grandmother, who raised him in Mountain View with his now deceased grandfather, may be having the hardest time with it. "She's really nervous," Vargas said. "Its a lot of attention I'm sure she doesn't want. I call everyday just to check in."

Vargas saw that he was in a position to help many others like him, immigrants brought here as kids who cannot have much of a life in the U.S. Without citizenship. He's heard from many of them in the last three weeks, including one with a law degree who has been busing tables for four years. "My heart just breaks for them," Vargas said. The United States is "all about dreaming big, (and) you are basically telling people, 'Oops, sorry, you can't.'"


Ultimately, Vargas does not have a policy recommendation, just a strong belief that the conversation on immigration needs to be "reframed" and "elevated."

As journalists, "we have to talk to people who don't agree with us," Vargas said. "I'm actually looking forward to having a civil dialogue with people who think that I should just be deported or think of me as a threat. Why do they use that word, illegal? What about me as a human being is illegal? I would not have done what I have done if I thought I would just be preaching to the choir. I did not put myself in my situation just so I could get a round of applause from people who already believe what I believe."

"Do i believe in securing the border? Of course I do," Vargas said. "Do I believe in enforcement? Of course I do. But we all know system is broken. We just don't have the political capital or will to make it a priority. Meanwhile millions are living in a shadow economy of sorts."

Vargas said he personally wrestled with the question of whether or not he has taken jobs away from American citizens. When he won his internship at the Washington Post, he called one of his mentors, former Mountain View High School principal Pat Hyland, and said, "Did I take somebody else's job?"

"Pat actually laughed at me," Vargas said. "She said, 'Stop thinking that way, you earned this.'"

"I got to where I got through hard work and merit," Vargas said. People think "my existence threatens your existence, when really it doesn't."

Vargas aims to break the stereotypes of undocumented immigrants as those who use social services without paying taxes, are only from Mexico and do not care to learn English or assimilate into American culture.

"I wanted to basically say, 'we are not who you think we are," Vargas said. Even some of his own colleagues and friends were shocked to learn of his status. "What do you mean? You've been to the White House!" was one reaction Vargas recalls.

At the same time, Vargas worries about embarrassing the Filipino community, including his family. Filipinos are very "under the radar. It is a very assimilated culture," Vargas said. "Having a Filipino American say he is undocumented isn't the greatest piece of news to Filipinos."

Vargas said he formed his non-profit, Define American, while planning to reveal his story in order to maximize the impact he could have in the country's debate on immigration. He said he doesn't expect legislators to pass immigration reform anytime soon, but he will be making sure it is discussed in the next presidential race, in which he will not be a reporter, but someone raising the issues.

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Like this comment
Posted by DREAM
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I support the US DREAM Act. Everyone who is opposed to it on political or racial grounds is not being realistic about the demographics of the United States.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2011 at 4:37 pm

As a LEGAL immigrant to the United States (from Mexico), I sympathize with this man's plight.

However, I have little sympathy with the dishonest methods and "easy way out" choices by which he and his family tried to stay in this nation.

It is not the easiest thing in the world to obtain entry into the United States. However, it is possible. My parents were certainly not wealthy. Yet they saved their money to pay for the legal fees in order to gain entry into the US from Mexico.

We came to this country when I was approaching Middle School. We came here literally with the clothes on our backs...and not much more. Our large family worked for years as migrant farm workers.

We traveled throughout the United States doing strenuous labor while living in a one bedroom metal travel trailer. It was difficult work -- but we did our best. We would start before dawn and finish very late. We took showers with a water hose behind the trailer. Those were hard times -- but we grew close as a family.

We became legal US citizens and still worked this migrant labor -- and we worked alongside Anglos, African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Yes, there were some illegal immigrants working as well, but there were enough legal residents to dispel the myth that these were jobs that "Americans won't do." To borrow from FIELD OF DREAMS, "if you pay, they will come." This is true of Americans as well -- especially nowadays.

After a few years, our family saved up enough money to buy some inexpensive land in Texas and begin building our home (while living in a small travel trailer). We literally built this house ourselves.

All the while, my parents demanded that we excel in school. We didn't even speak English when we moved to the US, but my dad expected all A's on our report cards -- including in English. That was the reason for our immigration to this nation. My parents had a 5th grade education in Mexico, but they were highly aware of the great advantage of grade school and college education in the United States.

Every school year, we did our best to succeed in school. Every summer, we worked the fields. Eventually, we ended up building a "beta" house while I was in high school. I say "beta" because it was a first attempt -- the old "college try" for which we learned from our mistakes.

During college, we were able to build a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom two-story brick our own hands. We spent weekends at home working on this project. When we were dating during college, my husband (then boyfriend) would help each and every weekend. He didn't know how to speak much Spanish with my parents, but he was a great help.

It is now finished. My parents live in a large home sitting on six acres of good land. They did so well that they recently completed a second home next door. They don't owe a dime for any of their property either.

In addition, all of my nine siblings have graduated from college with at least a bachelor's degree (with the exception of my youngest who is attending Stanford right now). Four of us have gone on to graduate degrees.

In essence, our family was able to live the American Dream. We struggled to gain entry and succeed in this nation -- and we respect this nation all the more for it.

This nation cannot afford what most illegal Mexican nationals demand. They want the US to have open borders. This nation cannot afford the influx of illegal immigrants who would come for the entitlement programs that men and women with falsified identification like this man used to get financial aid and employment as a reporter. Mexico even produces comic books that teach residents how to obtain such documents when they break into the United States (and how to use falsified identity to tap into the vast entitlement programs here).

One thing that bothers me is the refusal of many immigrants to become a part of the "melting pot" of the United States. We have immigrants who break into this nation illegally, use faked IDs to take resources meant for US citizens and even partake in identity theft. They don't leave Mexico because they attempt to take Mexico with them. They want citizenship in the US, but they cheer on Mexico over the US at international soccer/fútbol games -- including those on US soil. They won't salute the US flag on July 4th but they will go drinking on Cinco de Mayo (which isn't a real Mexican holiday anyway).

I just don't have sympathy for those who simply want to "use" the United States for its riches or social welfare programs but who refuse to respect the laws of this nation or who still exhibit preeminent allegiance to the country that they came from.

I know that my position isn't very popular among those who embrace the plight of illegal immigrants. And, please don't misunderstand me: I do sympathize with those who wish to come to this nation for the same reasons that we did. However, you can't just come to TAKE from a foreign nation without feeling any allegiance or loyalty to that nation. Unfortunately, many immigrants today feel more loyalty to their former homeland or their race/ethnicity than they do the nation (and its laws) where they desire to live.

I am an American. I am proud to be an American. Do I feel "superior" to Mexicans or illegal immigrants? Of course not. However, I do believe that our system of government, laws and economy is superior. Moreover, America is probably most distinct in the respect for law that people exhibit. The US lacks the widespread corruption that is found at nearly every facet of Mexican government. However, if a group of people refuse to exhibit a respect for law of a nation, then they shouldn't bother immigrating to the nation in the first place.

Like this comment
Posted by Neil
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2011 at 6:08 pm


Thank you for your inspiring story and congratulations on your success.

However, I don't think you're engaging Mr. Vargas's points. He is not advocating for a blanket amnesty for the types of illegal immigrants that you describe who abuse their position. Rather, he's talking about a more worthwhile immigration reform that gives certain deserving immigrants a chance to earn status.

As meager as your family's circumstances were, they at least had an opportunity to immigrate legally. For many people, this is not so--many of the immigration pathways that may have been available to your family no longer exist. There is no line to stand in or "right way" to get in for many people who immigrate, so it isn't fair to compare them to your own family. (My parents and brother were also legal immigrants who naturalized, and I am a natural born citizen.)

If you really want to engage Mr. Vargas's argument, imagine an undocumented Stanford student, possibly one of your sister's friends--and imagine that this person didn't realize they were undocumented until high school. Do you believe that person should turn away from their achievements and return to the meager circumstances that your family raised itself up in, for the chance that one day someone in the next generation of her family might have a legal opportunity to immigrate? Should she be forced to do this? Does that sound like a fair and efficient policy? Would our society be better off that way?

Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 18, 2011 at 6:53 pm

I really don't even believe your story, i find it hard to believe, you are saying your parents had a 5th grade education, well that is way more than many immigrant that come from mexico. there's nothing wrong with cheering for a team that is not the united team, years ago i did not cheer for the u.s soccer team mainly because i the players were not good enough in my opinion. this last world cup i cheered for them. You can say all this things about illegals and all, but the truth is that if this story about you was true , you are basin your opinion on a struggle that your parents did. Do you know what is like to leave your family behind having in mind that you are might never see them again you know what struggle really is.

Like this comment
Posted by PermanentResident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2011 at 8:40 am

Nayeli: Your story is truly inspiring. I hope you never stop telling people what your family has gone through and how much more your success means for having sacrificed so much and not "taking advantage."
Neil: I think your points are valid but I think you may have slightly misunderstood Nayeli's view.
JT: With your plethora of grammar and punctuation mistakes, why would we value your opinion?

Like this comment
Posted by jupiterk
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 19, 2011 at 11:56 am

This story is so one sided and I have nothing against Vargas personally. For every Vargas out there, there are 1000s of illegal immigrants who are criminals, free loaders ,etc...Issues need to be looked at all angles. The liberal media is on a propaganda campaign and they don't seem to care that the middle class citizens are losing their shirts and their way of life in this economy.

Dream Act means more welfare schemes and more taxes. If anybody thinks illegal immigrants are draining our coffers, they need to look at California's current pollution, population explosion and finance.

The liberal media is as rotten as Rupert Murdoch of the conservative media.

Like this comment
Posted by Dave Francis
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Stop the Discretionary Spending on ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

Notably the gargantuan problem with illegal immigration, both illegal and illegal is CHAIN MIGRATION. It stems from the initial legitimized individual who attains citizenship can then sponsor family members. Family consists of Wife or Husband, Child under 21and unmarried all all have immediate admittance into the US. A US Citizen can also sponsor a son or daughter who is 21 years old or over, a married son or daughter of any age, and a brother or sister, who falls into the DERIVATIVE category. The derivative classification has a waiting period of many years as it takes to process. The sponsors will need to demonstrate adequate income or assets to support the intending immigrant, and accept legal responsibility for financially supporting their family member, by completing and signing a document called an Affidavit of Support. Sponsoring these family members is all well intentioned and good, but the main issue comes when the sponsor, who must a sign an affidavit of financial support, intentionally or for whatever reason, fails to honor his commitment.

This part of immigration law, is hardly ever enforced so the recipients, have little choice but to apply for welfare assistance from the State and municipal government. The bottom line for any mass amnesty or as recorded Immigration Reform, gives those who are naturalized the right to petition (Form I-130 Petition for alien Relative) for their whole family, to legally enter America. But hundreds of thousands these petitions millions are processed and this has become an escalation of CHAIN MIGRATION, since the 1986. After the Hart/ Celler Act of 1965 when the Bracero Program was disbanded, the incentives and effects of chain migration perpetuated volume illegal migrants and immigration to the United States. In America the term 'chain migration' term to enlighten why legal immigration has quadrupled in replicating levels throughout the 1960s. As such, 'chain migration' is branded as one of the principal causes of the United States' current immigrant population explosion.

NumbersUSA, a a million plus organization that lobbies Congress for lower levels of immigration, states that, “one of the chief culprits in America's current record-breaking population boom and all the attendant sprawl, congestion, school overcrowding, health care deterioration, and other impacts that reduce American's quality of life. NumbersUSA cites the tradition of chain migration to America as a main cause for creating incentives for undocumented immigration.

NumbersUSA, FAIR, and other groups are working to change immigration law to limit chain migration laws. NumbersUSA cites a specific bill it supports. “On Feb. 4, 2009, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) introduced the Nuclear Family Priority Act (H.R. 878). The bill would eliminate the extended family visa categories (e.g., married sons and daughters of citizens, etc.), thus ending “chain migration” as optional by the bi-partisan Barbara Jordan Commission in 1997.

Today, passage of the Dream Act is cause for worry or any kind of mass Immigration Reform, would jeopardize the minimum of entrances to the US, through CHAIN MIGRATION. One point to this quandary is America has a major deficit problem, that has risen to new heights of $14.5 Trillion dollars under President obama's signature hand. Simply put, we cannot afford to be the breadwinner for the rest of the world anymore. If we haven't the cash anymore to pay the Chinese Investors and others, how can we afford an Amnesty estimated to cost $2.6 Trillion dollars? Never mind the original giant Amnesty of the 1986 Immigration Control and reform Act, cost only 76 Billion dollars. This is just a projection of the Census Bureau’s 11 million illegal aliens who have homesteaded here. But most activist organizations are of the opinion, there are more than 20 million living illegally in the US, while 8 million plus foreigners have employment.

In this dragging recession how can Democrats, even discuss such an issue? Have the liberal progressives lost their minds, when there are 13 million American out of a job? It's too incomprehensible, to even conceive such an awful situation for the lower income workers having to compete with this new source of potential hires? The majority of illegal aliens today are-ECONOMIC; they are here for their share of discretionary spending at Federal, State or Municipal level.

One of the largest costs that would certainly make a difference is cutting benefits to illegal aliens. $113 Billion dollars, from the Federal government, that is not counting State, County and community for these hundreds of welfare and public services. Few know the amount of money paid out to parents of a child that receives an immediate birthright citizenship. Each child receives entitlements of what US citizens get, even though the parents are illegal.

EACH YEAR 300.000 PLUS BABIES ARE SMUGGLED ANNUALLY INTO AMERICA IN THE MOTHERS WOMB, TO GAIN THE SPECIAL PRIVILEGE OF A MISINTERPRETED LAW; THE 14TH AMENDMENT. Once here and the parents are allowed to stay, the--ECONOMIC--family can then collect from taxpayers. So what does these entitlements consist of to the taxpayer? For a start cash payments of around $600.00 according to the State, that can double, triple for ever baby born. Food stamps, Medicaid Wicca (WIC) is a nutrition program for women, infants and children), (TANF) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Low Income housing. The most disturbing effect of this particular issue, that other family member can join those already here and hid away in their government backed homes.

As thousands of people join the TEA PARTY, it is obvious that they have the right avenue towards building a better tomorrow. Their ticket to the 2012 elections is less government, less taxes (A fair taxing system, without loopholes for everybody) and reducing Illegal Immigration to a real trickle. When states like Arizona cannot rely on the US government, to construct the—REAL FENCE—at the border, then it has been forced by huge entitlement programs for foreign nationals crossing our sovereign perimeter to build another 78 miles of the fence through public and commercial donations. States are waking up as the look at their dwindling amounts of money in their treasuries? California, the first Sanctuary State that’s Liberal Congress, gives away freely benefits to millions of illegal alien homes. That’s why they are trying to climb out of a giant financial hole of $26 Billion dollars. ALABAMA, GEORGIA, ARIZONA are doing the right thing for their legal population, by enacting policing laws. Many states looking on are now supporting these restriction issues, because both political parties have ignored the laws to aid taxpayers. These new laws are--WORKING-- because thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands are deserting these--zero tolerant--States and rushing of to California, Nevada and other refuge States.

Insist you’re Representative in Washington, that they rescind any Immigration reform bills, Sanctuary Cities and state, the Dream Act and anything that has the rotten stench of AMNESTY. Liberals and open border brain-dead individuals, always refer to every foreign aliens, as “Immigrants’” tying everybody together in one population. No matter your country of origin, whether Hispanic, European, Asian or the Pacific Rim, if you come here legally, there should be no fear of the E-Verify and Secure Communities. TO REPEAT ILLEGAL ALIENS ARE NOT IMMIGRANTS. THEY ARE ILLEGAL AND ENTERED A SOVEREIGN COUNTRY WITHOUT PERMISSION. LEGAL HIGHLY SKILLED WORKERS SHOULD HAVE ACCESS TO PRIVILEGED VISAS, BUT WE MUST REMOVE THROUGH WHATEVER MEANS POSSIBLE TO DEPORT ILLEGAL Currently, illegal aliens are not only stealing jobs (should be a felony) from less schooled citizens, but residents and even students during the seasonable recess. NATIONALS. This is a very distasteful situation but birthright citizens and legal non-citizen individuals have a right to be employed over foreign nationals.

This is a patriotic chance to help your fellow jobless countryman by Calling House Leadership NOW Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I must spend more time considering potential choices about which laws I plan to be immune from when we start granting immunity to illegal aliens based on how much emotion media can wrung from their stories.

'Queen for a Day' was a big TV hit a long time ago-maybe a revived and updated 'Undocumented Likeable Immigrant' version is the best platform for deciding individual plights.

Like this comment
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 20, 2011 at 12:17 am

I love how everyone posting here who is against immigration is a descendent of immigrants.
This country was built by immigrants and I'm sure not so long ago you or your family immigrated too.

As someone who went through the naturalization process, I can understand why a lot of people don't bother going through the legal channels. Dealing with the Department of Homeland Security (nee INS) is like dealing with the DMV if it were about 1000 times worse. Plus they can kick you out of your home or separate you from your family at any minute.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 20, 2011 at 12:30 am

I am all for reviewing those who are innocent victims of immigration law and being fair to people, that's not the issue though.

The argument here is take one illegal immigrant who made good and then argue that all illegal immigrants can make good ... it has nothing to do with the problem.

Lots of African American slaves made good eventually too, is that an argument for slavery? No.

OK, he is a special case, a gold boy so to speak that makes illegal immigrant look good ... now to be fair, do we then go out and post pictures of all the illegal immigrants who have committed crimes or gone on welfare or whatever.

One anecdotal story does not answer the problem.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 20, 2011 at 12:37 am

> I love how everyone posting here who is against immigration is a descendent of immigrants.

I love how you are so below the mark in terms of making a logical honest argument.

You have no idea who is arguing what here, nor if the immigrant ancestors of people who may be posting here were legal or illegal, and when you go back far enough if there even was a legal or illegal way to look at things.

I am a staunch Democrat and supporter of all people and minorities, but why do weak arguments like this continue to be offered as some kind of backing to illegal immigrants. it is a problem, the US should have not to exist based on a hidden slave class of peolpe that get exploited, and the exploited class should not be used by people who pretend to be interested in human rights and ecnomic justice.

This who issue has been so twisted and bent out of shape by people who make money from exploiting these illegals, and that means all the rest of us are OK with it because it continues. it needs to end, and this guys nice story needs to be seen for what it is, an argument for him to avoid any problems with immigration so we can stay here when he was illegal. I am not smart enough to figure that one out, but if we can catch it early enough kinds like him should not be allowed to move here and stay here - Unless the whole world decide to open up and let anyone move anywhere - then problems solved, new problems on the horizon.

Like this comment
Posted by tired of this
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm

The U.S. is the most generous country in the world and already very generous to immigrants.
The high and mighty term bandied about in recent years: "immigration reform" is ridiculous.
The U.S., like all other countries has the right to enforce it's borders and have a system of orderly immigration. This is not a lawless country as some would desire.
There is no need for "immigration reform" but rather there is a need for consistent enforcement of U.S. borders. We already have a system in place for legal immigration and have been overly generous with all sorts of refugees over the years.
We cannot support the entire poor sector of Mexico, which country is happy to dump their problems on us.

Like this comment
Posted by blame
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm

US always has someone to blame,do not forget you took over their land by forces two hundred years ago.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm

'Took over their land' is an argument of La Raza who seem to be planning or at least hoping they will pull a 'reconquista' in the future.

Mexico's native Indians had a long history of tribal conquest, slavery of other peoples and sacrifice of prisoners from war-not exactly a pristine pulpit from which to complain of taking over land by force.

Mexico was eventually populated by conquering Spaniards mixing with native Indians plus eventually people from lots of other countries-where do you think accordions come from in current bands.

But even the 'native' Indians are not so native. A current theory is the Aztecs migrated to Mexico themselves -probably from what is today's southwest US. And everybody came over at one time on the land bridge from today's Siberia to Alaska/Canada. Nobody spontaneously popped into existence in Mexico.

Like this comment
Posted by rabbit
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 20, 2011 at 5:17 pm

yes,mexican people, pop up more babies,take back what is yours.

Like this comment
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 20, 2011 at 6:28 pm

"I love how everyone posting here who is against immigration is a descendent of immigrants."

Wrong. With very few (if any) exceptions, they are descendents of ILLEGAL immigrants. Ask any Native American.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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