In an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Jose Antonio Vargas discussed coming out as an undocumented immigrant, which he reveals in an essay for The New York Times Magazine. When NPR’s Michele Norris asked him if he still considers himself a journalist after forming a group to advocate for immigration reform, he said, “I am a journalist. I go to church every day; it’s journalism. It’s my church. It’s my religion.” In response to a question about whether he’ll benefit more from coming out than the immigrants he’s advocating for, he said, “As I move forward with this, I will certainly make sure that this does not just become the Jose Antonio Vargas show.” He also defends his journalism, saying no one has raised any questions about the 650 stories he’s written in his career. Selections from the interview below.
How Vargas reconciles his journalism with his activism:
Norris: “So you decided at one point that you were covering the story, but actually you were the story.”
Vargas: “Yeah. And I think all of us as journalists, you know, were trained to be objective, sort of. But you know, objectivity is a luxury. I’ve written enough stories, that I think they stand on their own, that no one can question the journalistic acumen, and the journalistic ethics, in them….”
Norris: “You’re a former journalist at this point, or do you still consider yourself to be a journalist? You’re an advocate, and it’s sort of hard to be both.”
Vargas: “That’s a very good question. I am a journalist. I go to church every day; it’s journalism. It’s my church. It’s my religion. It’s all I know how to do. It’s all I’ve known what to do. And what I’m hoping to do in the next few months, leading into the 2012 presidential campaign, is really to try to make sure we’re looking at this issue [immigration policy] as holistically as possible.”
On how coming out helps the cause of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.:
Norris: “As you know there are millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S., and tens of thousands of them could potentially be eligible for citizenship, or at least a path to citizenship, under the DREAM Act. Is doing what you’ve done the best way to help their cause?
“And I ask this with someone in mind. I was listening to AM radio this morning and I heard a caller who identified herself as an undocumented person – in fact she used the word ‘illegal’ to talk about her own self – and she said, this is going to make him – you, Jose Antonio Vargas – rich and famous. He’ll get a book contract, he’ll maybe even get a movie deal. She asked the question, ‘What about me, how does this help me?’ Does she have a point?”
Vargas: “She totally has a point, and this is totally about her. This much I promise you: As I move forward with this, I will certainly make sure that this does not just become the Jose Antonio Vargas show. The media’s going to try to do that, for the next few days and weeks. But as long as I’m doing this, I’m going to make sure this is not just about me.”
On whether being in the U.S. illegally raises questions about his work as a journalist:
Norris: “The media will also hit you with some sharp questions, put you under a very, very powerful microscope. And one of the things people wonder about is the sort of duality in your life – the lies that you had to tell. You’re coming out and writing this tell-all at the same time that you’re launching this group, Define American, that is pushing for the passage of the DREAM Act.
“When you were actually working as a journalist, in order to hold onto that position and that job, you had to tell a series of lies. And journalists are usually known as people who don’t take sides in controversial issues. They usually pursue the truth and explain the laws. In your case you broke the laws and avoided the truth. And some of your critics say that two words that are missing from your story so far are, ‘I’m sorry.’
Vargas: “…I am sorry for breaking the country’s laws – my country’s laws. I am no different from anybody else in that I wanted to live my life and I wanted to survive. And if I didn’t tell those lies, I couldn’t have gotten work and I couldn’t have survived. The hardest conflict for me has been, how can you live honestly with lies? …
“This idea that I’ve lived kind of a dual life: I have written 650 news articles, I’ve maybe had, maybe nine or 10 corrections in my entire career. I don’t think a single source, including Mark Zuckerberg who I profiled in The New Yorker or Al Gore who I profiled for Rolling Stone, have come forward and said, ‘Oh, I never said that.’ I have tried to do my job the best way that I could do it. And the work I think speaks for itself.”
In the full interview, which lasted more than 12 minutes, Vargas describes checking the the “citizen” box for the first time (at the San Francisco Chronicle), how his family has responded to his revelation and whether it will result in him being prosecuted or deported.
Meanwhile, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton wrote in a story published Friday afternoon saying that he doesn’t understand why the paper didn’t run Vargas’ story: “I think The Post missed an opportunity to tell a great and compelling story, and to air and take responsibility for some internal dirty laundry.”
Pexton suggested the paper should have taken an additional step beyond publishing Vargas’ own account.
“But then do a second, rigorously reported news story that included answers to some of the outstanding questions that readers inevitably have:
“How did he come to work at The Post as an undocumented immigrant and get through the background check? Why did Perl decide to keep Vargas’s secret? Are there potential legal consequences for Perl or The Post Co.? And, more generally, is Vargas trustworthy as a journalist even though he covered up a key aspect of his life?
“I tried to find answers to some of these questions last week. Mainly I got no comment.