Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Why a Pulitzer winner is coming out as undocumented

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Revealing one's undocumented status as a political act has so far been embraced mostly by college students, young people eager to put a face on those who would benefit from proposed legislation known as the Dream Act. Now, that face has become a little older, a little more familiar.

In a piece published today in the New York Times Magazine, former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas reveals the secret that has haunted him throughout his career: He is undocumented.

Vargas, who shared a Pulitzer Prize three years ago for coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, was brought here illegally by a smuggler from the Philippines when he was 12 years old, at his mother's behest. He writes:

We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.

In a stunning confession, Vargas tells the story of how he managed to navigate through high school and college, and eventually into a coveted internship and a Washington Post staff writer job, with the help of an intimate network of supporters who knew his secret, among them his grandfather, a legal immigrant who initially arranged for his false papers. He recalls how he researched which states would be most apt to grant him a driver's license, settling on Oregon. He learned early on that revealing his secret typically led to closed doors, so he kept it to himself, sharing it only with a few close confidantes.

He writes that he was inspired to tell his story by the young people who have revealed their status recently as they campaign for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would grant conditional legal status to youths brought here before age 16 if they go to college or join the military. When he was younger, Vargas would have qualified.

After leaving the Washington Post in 2009, Vargas reported for organizations such as the Huffington Post and The New Yorker. With his Times Magazine piece, he's announcing the launch of Define American, an online campaign that seeks to redefine the conversation on immigration reform.

Vargas, who I've contacted for an interview, is not the only award-winning journalist to discuss his immigration status recently. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Los Angeles Times Pulitzer winner Ruben Vives was once undocumented also. He was able to obtain legal status - and eventually a newspaper job - through the efforts of his mother's employer, another journalist.

How the coming-out undocumented movement has grown

What began as a handful of students revealing immigration status for political reasons has become increasingly accepted among undocumented students. The movement uses the language, and in some ways the tactics, of the early gay rights movement, with many students and advocates quoting civil rights icon Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who was murdered in 1978, on "coming out" as a political act. In March, as part of a "National Coming Out of the Shadows Week," coming-out events were held by undocumented students around the country, including in Southern California.

“People have reached this point,” said Jorge Gutierrez, a 26-year-old activist and graduate of Cal State Fullerton who was brought here by his family from Mexico at age 10, and who has not been able to adjust his status. “It has become a cultural phenomenon.”

Is revealing immigration status still risky?

While it's still not something their parents would likely do because of the risks involved, as the coming-out movement has grown, American-raised youths who arrived as minors have a different attitude about safety in numbers. Many believe that the more "out" one is, the more support there is, especially if one is marked for deportation.

Social media campaigns have been mounted around many Dream Act-eligible young people about to be deported. A national signature-gathering campaign just resulted in a last-minute reprieve from deportation to India for Mandeep Chahal, a UC Davis pre-med student voted "Most Likely to Save the World" by her high school peers. Last year, San Francisco college student Steve Li was in detention in Arizona, awaiting a flight out of the country, when a campaign by friends and supporters led to a private bill introduced on his behalf.

Nancy Meza, a UCLA graduate and member of a group called Dream Team Los Angeles, said that one of the side benefits to “coming out” is participation in a broad support network of peers. “What we’ve seen is that the more public you are, the more out there you are, the more public support you have, especially in deportation cases,” said Meza, 24. “I think that going public is one of the ways that a person could have a better opportunity of getting deferred action.”

At the same time, other young people remain in deportation proceedings. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released new guidelines last week urging use of prosecutorial discretion in the cases of certain immigrants, among them college students brought here as children.

For working adults like Vargas, however, revealing one's undocumented status carries major risks. These involve not only loss of employment and possible deportation but also potential criminal sanctions, as detailed today in The Atlantic.

What's happening on the legislative front

Versions of the federal Dream Act have been floated around Congress for a decade. The version most recently voted on passed the House in December, but failed to clear the Senate. Last month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ilinois) and other Senate Democrats announced plans to reintroduce a new version of the proposed legislation that's fairly similar to the House-approved one.

Conditional legal status would be granted to qualifying young people who were brought to this country before age 16. In addition to maintaining “good moral character” during the conditional period and other requirements, beneficiaries would need to: a) have acquired a degree from an institute of higher learning, or at least completed two years in good standing toward a bachelor’s or higher degree; b) served at least two years in “uniformed services” and, if discharged, received an honorable discharge.

Under the proposed bill, which has yet to make it to the Senate floor, the age cap for applicants would be set at 35 and the length of conditional status would be six years. Unlike the most recent version of the Dream Act, this bill also seeks to repeal a ban on in-state tuition rates for beneficiaries.

Several state "Dream Act" bills that would make college more affordable for undocumented students have been circulating as well, including in California, where one bill that would allow access to public financial aid for these students is being voted on today. However, these bills only deal with financing tuition, not granting legal status.