BuzzFeed: Bright Lights, Big Secret

July 13th, 2012


By, Michael Hastings
Jul 13, 2012

“As a general rule it’s not a crime for a removable alien to remain in the U.S,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, reading from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s brief on the recent Supreme Court decision on immigration. “When I saw that I was like, ‘Okay, well, I guess that means that I’m no longer illegal.”

Vargas is sitting in a small apartment, right off Manhattan’s Union Square. The Supreme Court brief is not just a matter of legal theory or political implications for the 31-year-old journalist. Over the past year he’s spent many days in his second floor walk-up, always aware that any moment he might hear a knock on the door that meant federal agents had arrived to deport him.

It’s been exactly 372 days since Vargas revealed, in a New York Times Magazine cover story, that he was an undocumented worker. An undocumented reporter, no less, who’d won a Pulitzer Prize and written for the country’s most esteemed publications, like The Washington Post and The New Yorker.

The story was a massive hit: “undocumented immigrant” trended worldwide on Twitter; it was the most-read story on Google News for two weeks; tens of thousands shared it on Facebook.

Overnight, Vargas became one the most public faces for the approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country and the network of tens of millions more who support them. And though he was often mistaken for a Latino, he was actually from the Philippines — and a college-educated gay man, who’d come to the U.S. on a plane — challenging notions about what undocumented immigrants look like.

But there was a very big downside as well. In the aftermath of the bombshell piece, Washington State revoked his driver’s license. An online petition popped up, demanding he be deported, and he received threats. He also received a torrent of scathing criticism from his peers in journalism, questioning his character and his motives. Some at the Washington Post, which had originally killed the story, began a whisper campaign against him, suggesting he couldn’t be trusted. He lost a number of friends and colleagues, including some he’d looked up to and admired.

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