Former WaPo reporter outs himself as illegal immigrant- so what happens now?


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Reporter Jose Antonio Vargas admission in Sunday's New York Times Magazine that he has been living and working in American journalism over the past decade while not admitting to his immediate superiors that he was undocumented set off a firestorm from some of his former employers in the media. But he bigger question is: will his admission add something new to the debate in this country about illegal immigration?

Vargas tells the story of coming to California in the mid 1990's from the Philippines (separating from his mother) to stay with his grandparents. He graduated from San Francisco State in 2004 in Political Science (incidentally my alma mater), and began working for the Washington Post almost immediately after he left the school (he worked for the San Francisco Chronicle while still in school), and was part of a team of reporters for the Post that won a Pulitzer for their coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting massacre.

But in his riveting story (originally commissioned by the Post, who apparently then got cold feet and killed it), the journalist, who also admits in the story that he is gay, said that the secret that he has withheld from his bosses was something he could no longer do, as he learned about undocumented youths in Miami fight for passage of the DREAM act last year:

Last year I read about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act, a nearly decade-old immigration bill that would provide a path to legal permanent residency for young people who have been educated in this country. At the risk of deportation — the Obama administration has deported almost 800,000 people in the last two years — they are speaking out. Their courage has inspired me.

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. 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.

Vargas appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources Sunday for his first broadcast interview since the story broke.

In media circles, some of Vargas' former employers - okay, one of them, anyway - reacted strongly to his admission for aiding and abetting an illegal activity, and probably more importantly, being lied to.

Nobody was more vocal in his anger than Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle, in a blog post entitled, "I was duped by Jose Vargas, illegal immigrant."

Bronstein is now editor-at-large for the Hearst newspaper chain, but edited the Chron, San Francisco's biggest daily, for years. He writes angrily in the first part of his piece, "Jose lied to me and everyone else he worked for, and that's not kosher, especially in a profession where facts and, more elusively, the truth are considered valuable commodities."

But he it ends it in a more uplifting fashion, writing:

For me, despite the subterfuge, he's done what he intended: given a surprising, articulate and human face to an important issue for at least some of those millions of people out there floating in terrifying limbo. For me, it's the face of a friend

Like many successful young people blessed with talent and brains, Jose has a healthy dose of hubris. He'll have to watch that as much as he will the approaching footsteps of ICE enforcers.

But if he can come out, the force of his story - both good reaction and bad - and his project just might lubricate the politically tarred-up wheels of government and help craft sane immigration policy. If it has that effect, we should forgive him his lies.

As mentioned earlier, the Washington Post's editor, Marcus Brauchli killed the piece earlier this month, leading the Post's ombudsmen, Patrick B. Pexton, to rip his own boss in his Sunday column.

Why would The Post punt to a rival a riveting, already edited story that could provoke national discussion on immigration — an issue that sorely needs it — and that also included possibly illegal, and perhaps forgivable, conduct by a former Post reporter and current member of management?

Beats the heck out of many in The Post’s newsroom and beats the heck out of me. The cardinal rule of journalism, or politics, is that if there’s bad or questionable information, put it out yourself, be thorough and transparent, and don’t pull any punches.

In Vargas' piece, he writes that Peter Perl, the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for personnel, knew of his illegal status when Vargas worked at the paper from 2004-2009.

As part of his "outing" campaign, Vargas is also part of an advocacy group called Define American, that lists passage of the DREAM Act as one of its goals.

The Post's ombudsman, Mr. Pexton, does admonish Vargas for getting behind this, writing:

It’s also disturbing that Vargas has formed a nonprofit group to advocate for immigration reform. He has crossed the line from journalist to advocate.

Needless to say, Vargas' admission is receiving lots of play in cyberspace, with support and hate being expressed in equal doses.

But the larger issue is this: when does Washington D.C. - Congress and the President, do something on comprehensive immigration reform? Probably nothing, since there's a national election in a little over a year. That's states like Georgia, Alabama, Arizona and others are passing their own laws, with pressure continuing in some quarters for Florida's Legislature to do so in 2012.

But in terms of demonizing the issue - Vargas is perhaps now the most famous of the 11.2 million undocumented people that we always read are "living in the shadows." Can his own story change minds? That will be interesting to watch and see, as will simply what happens to the 30-year-old reporter, in terms of whether he can remain in the U.S.


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