Back In the Bay Area, Vargas Opens Up About Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

In Q&A with editor Phil Bronstein, former Mountain View resident Jose Antonio Vargas credits his friends, family and career for opportunities that came his way.

Jose Antonio Vargas' life can be divided into two significant parts—his life before he "outed" himself as an undocumented immigrant, and his life after.

Like the fact that , he could drive and fly with his fake Washington State driver's license. Now, he has a passport issued to him by the Embassy of the Philippines in New York that he uses to fly.

"I'm not driving. I have given up the privilege," Vargas said in response to a question by Phil Bronstein, former executive editor and Vargas' first employer at the San Francisco Chronicle, who moderated the question-and-answer session Monday night at the Commonwealth Club. "Everyone who has a driver's license, give it a big hug. I mean, what's more American than a driver's license?"

To a roomful of supporters, admirers and perhaps a few detractors at the forum in San Francisco, Pulitzer Prize-winner Vargas talked openly about his life after he announced his undocumented immigration status 19 days ago. But while many things have changed, the few things that had not became clear: his passion for journalism and the role his played and continue to play in his life.

"A few friends even offered to marry me," said the openly gay Vargas about his Mountain View High School female friends. "But I wasn't going to correct one mistake with another mistake."

In the audience sat Pat Hyland, dean of students at Foothill College and former principal at ; Rich Fisher, former superintendent of the  (MVLA); and Susan Sweeley, current president of the MVLA Board of Trustees. They provided mentorship and, in some cases, financial support for Vargas.

"The only people that knew was my Mountain View family," he said. "To this day, I'm happy I went to Mountain View High School."

A little less supportive or understanding have been the journalists and editors that Vargas worked for and with since college. After the release of his New York Times essay, Vargas has started to apologize to all of those people he lied to.

"I had to lie, so I'm in no position to question their frustration or anger," Vargas said. "All I can say is that I'm sorry I lied, but then again, I would have never been in those newsrooms."

Before, Vargas wrote about such varied topics as AIDS in Washington, D.C., and video games, a total of about 650 articles throughout his career. He even scored an interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Now Vargas said he would write exclusively about immigration.

"We talk a lot about immigration but not about immigrants," Vargas said.

Bronstein, who wrote in his blog that he felt "duped" by Vargas, quickly challenged him and said, "we do (write about immigrants), but a certain type of immigrant," and he asked Vargas how a day laborer would relate to him, someone so "privileged."

"Because I worked hard," Vargas said. "There are undocumented students in this room who are working really hard and they are just like you.

"But so do undocumented day laborers, babysitters and the ones who pick your lettuce. I represent just how incredibly dysfunctional the system is."

Bronstein said he wondered why Vargas had been left alone by the immigration authorities, unlike so many other illegal immigrants. Vargas replied that he has a team of lawyers who warned him his public announcement would be legal suicide. But Vargas doesn't think he's a high priority, though he'd be ready for whatever happens. He'd prefer to stay in America, however.

Bronstein also asked Vargas, "have you made it?"

After a short pause followed by a hard swallow to choke back his tears, Vargas expressed his pride when he saw his name on the cover of the New Yorker article he wrote about Zuckerberg and shared that he would have written it even without pay.

"Success is being able to go to bed at night peacefully," he said. "So no, I don't feel successful."


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