One of the best parts of my job at the Sidney Hillman Foundation is working on the monthly Sidney Awards for excellence in journalism.
I was very excited to learn that our judges had selected Jose Antonio Vargas for his New York Times Magazine piece, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” in which the 30-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning reporter reveals a secret that had haunted him since the age of 16. Like an estimated 11 million others in this country, Vargas is an undocumented immigrant.
He came to the U.S. from the Philippines at the age of 12, unaware that his family had arranged for him to enter the country with forged paperwork.
At first, everything unfolded as Vargas’ mother had planned. Vargas adjusted quickly to life in his new home. As far as he knew, he was an all-American boy living in California with his naturalized American grandparents. The illusion was shattered by a D.M.V. clerk who pegged Vargas’ “Green Card” as a forgery.
Vargas faced a choice between going back to a country he barely remembered, or forging ahead with his life in the U.S.–if a 16-year-old in such a predicament can be said to have any choice at all.
Vargas’ grandfather, a security guard known to his grandson as “Lolo,” had planned for his grandson to smooth out his immigration status by marrying an American citizen. Lolo’s plan was derailed, or at least set back, when his grandson came out as gay in his late teens.
Vargas reasoned that if he hadn’t been given citizenship, he would have to earn it. He went on to share a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post, profile facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker, and see his reporting on HIV become the basis of a documentary film.
Vargas forged ahead, hoping that immigration reform would pass before his only piece of official ID, his lifeline to the mainstream American economy, expired. It didn’t. He got a reprieve in the form of a new ID, but, the strain of living a double life had become intolerable. Inspired by undocumented student activists who risked deportation to push for the DREAM Act, Vargas resolved to tell his own story.
The DREAM Act is bipartisan legislation, currently stalled in congress, that would allow undocumented youth who were brought to this country as children the opportunity to earn legal permanent residency by going to college or serving in the military.
By coincidence, I had blogged about Vargas’ essay for Big Think before I joined the Hillman Foundation. So, I was very excited to have the opportunity to interview him for the Backstory, a Q&A feature that accompanies each Sidney Award.
[Photo: Jose Antonio Vargas graduating from high school, courtesy of Define American.]