Pinoy Pulitzer winner admits being a 'TNT'

- Jose Katigbak () - June 24, 2011 - 12:00am

WASHINGTON – He lifted himself up by his bootstraps, created a good life and lived the American dream, but as Filipino reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner recalls it, “the more I achieved, the more scared and depressed I became.”

Why? Because he is an undocumented immigrant living a different kind of reality.

“It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful,” he wrote in an exposé in Wednesday’s online edition of The New York Times.

In the article entitled “My life as an undocumented immigrant” Vargas said in 1993 when he was 12 his mother handed him to a man at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport who put him on a flight to San Francisco.

“My mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me thousands of miles away to live with her parents in America - my grandfather and grandmother,” he said.

He later found out the man was a coyote, paid by his lolo $4,500 to smuggle him to the US under a fake name and a fake passport.

 “After I arrived in America, lolo obtained a new fake Filipino passport, in my real name this time, adorned with a fake student visa, in addition to the fraudulent green card,” he said.

On turning 16, Vargas said he tried to get a driver’s license but was told by a clerk who examined his green card as proof of US residency that the card was a fake.

“Don’t come back here again,” the clerk advised him.

Confused and scared he hurried home and confronted his lolo, showing him the green card and asking “Peke ba ito(Is this fake)?”

“I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me,” Vargas said.

In high school the youth excelled in his studies, became a member of the debate team, acted in school plays and eventually became co-editor of the student newspaper.

He also openly declared he was gay.

Vargas said he had opportunities to travel abroad but not having the proper documents he had to bow out or give excuses as to why he could not go.

With the help of a network of supporters he was able to get a driver’s license and enroll at San Francisco State University on a scholarship.  

He was an intern at The Washington Post in 2003 and this led to a job offer.

In the five years that followed Vargas excelled in writing and reporting.

In 2008 he was part of a Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre the previous year.

He said on the day of the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize, his lola called him and the first thing she blurted out was “Anong mangyayari kung malaman nang tao (What will happen if people find out)?”

“I couldn’t say anything. After we got off the phone, I rushed to the bathroom on the fourth floor of the newsroom, sat down on the toilet and cried,” Vargas said.

“After years of fear, of lying to people I respect and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am, I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore. So I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection,” he said.

About 11 million undocumented immigrants are in the US. These illegal aliens are often called “TNT,” short for “Tago Nang Tago,” translated to “always hiding” in English.

But as Vargas wrote: “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.”

He said he was inspired to tell his story after he read about four undocumented students who walked from Miami to Washington last year and risked deportation to lobby for the Dream Act, a bill that would provide a path to legal residency for young people who have been educated in the US.

“It’s been almost 18 years since I’ve seen my mother. Early on, I was mad at her for putting me in this position, and then mad at myself for being angry and ungrateful,” Vargas said.

He rarely spoke to her by phone because it was too painful.

It was easier to just send money to help support her and his two half-siblings whom he’d never met.

Not long ago he said he called his mother to fill gaps in his memory of that August morning so many years ago when they parted.

“Part of me wanted to shove the memory aside, but to write this article and face the facts of my life, I needed more details.“

His mother told him he was excited about meeting a stewardess, about getting on the plane.

“She also reminded me of the one piece of advice she gave me for blending in: If anyone asked why I was coming to America, I should say I was going to Disneyland.”

Reacting to Vargas’ story, the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) on Wednesday renewed its call on Congress to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act which offers a way for overstaying aliens who sign up for college or military service to become permanent residents, so-called ‘Green Card’ holders.

To be eligible they must have been brought to the United States before the age of 16, lived in the country for at least five years and graduated from high school.

NaFFAA national chairman Eduardo Navarra in a statement urged all Filipino Americans to play an active role getting Congress to pass the Dream Act.

“Tens of thousands of Filipinos, including Jose Antonio Vargas, would benefit from passage of this act,” he said.


On Wednesday, Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti condemned the actions of Vargas and Peter Perl, his former mentor and now the newspaper’s training director whom he told his secret to.

“What Jose did was wrong. What Peter did was wrong,” Coratti said but declined to comment further.

“We are also reviewing our internal procedures, and we believe this was an isolated incident of deception.”

The Post originally planned to publish Vargas’ story, but decided not to. Coratti would not say why.

Meantime, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Cori Bassett would not comment specifically on Vargas’ case Wednesday but said the agency prioritizes cases that pose the most significant threat to public safety. – With AP

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