After days of watching a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist be grilled by lesser personalities — by journalists who will never come close enough to a Pulitzer to preen in its reflection — a thought.

Last week, Jose Antonio Vargas published a passionate and frankly honest essay in the New York Times: My Life as An Undocumented Immigrant. It’s an important and courageous piece, and one that deserves to spur important dialogues about the diverse experience of the millions of people living and working in the United States without documentation, and what should be done to address that.

But the media (oh wait, is this the Liberal Media?) has largely decided to take a different tack: tarring and feathering Vargas as One Of Them. I am not sure this is the more productive angle.

On CNN, the name key under his face: Exclusive: The Reporter Who Broke The Law.

Vargas was 12 years old when his mother put him on a plane from the Philippines to the United States. Seared by the surging hate towards undocumented immigrants, he threw himself into journalism. Won a Pulitzer for his team work on the Virginia Tech shootings before he was 30.

He “broke the law.”

“(Someone else) said — you have crossed the line from journalist to advocate. Have you?”  glowers the very Firm White Man on the CNN anchor desk. “Clearly you have approached this… with a very strong point of view.”


To understand Vargas’ courage, it is important to understand the peculiar and often self-contradictory rage that is directed towards undocumented immigrants in the United States, where a tattered American Dream and a broken American media have conspired to transform “illegals” into kleptomaniac shadow-ghosts, slinking through the barrios to steal the God-given gifts that are due Real True American Citizens.

Even as those same “illegals” do much of the work that keeps much of America running: thankless, brutal, often poorly-paid work;

Even as many economists and the best reviews of evidence conclude that “illegals” either add a net gain to the American economy or, at worst, a comparatively tiny net loss;

Even as exhaustive resources are being spent hunting down “illegals” who are breaking their backs to keep the farms going, as states pass draconian bills - a use of resources one sheriff bravely refused to comply with. (Later, Clarence Dupnik would speak out against violent rhetoric in media, after it fell to his office to investigate the devastating shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people. I like this guy.)

Vargas’ story does not fit the traditional narrative of undocumented immigrants, however: in his career, he is deliriously successful. He’s written for The New Yorker, a bastion of American power. He’s profiled Mark Zuckerberg and reported on Hillary Clinton and, as top journalists do, learned to float through the halls of influence, at once a part of power and yet forever Other. An outsider, a tolerated and even trusted interloper.

Maybe it’s fitting for an undocumented immigrant to become a journalist, in that way.

What Vargas did took immense courage. He has risked everything to tell his story, and let light be on it, in a way few of us can fully comprehend. For him, everything is at stake: his life in the United States, the only one he’s ever known, is immediately at risk. His career, obviously. His friendships and relationships.

“You have crossed the line from journalist to advocate…”

It’s the blithe ignorance in this statement that is most infuriating. On a network where folks like Jack Cafferty and Lou Dobbs and an ever-shifting parade of “analysts” have spent hours on most weekdays blasting “illegals” as an “army of invaders” hell-bent on overrunning America — a stretch which required mangling all sorts of facts to do so — the audacity of accusing Vargas of sacrificing his journalistic integrity to become an “advocate” is shocking.

Shocking, and shameful.

Especially considering that Vargas offered a piece that, I think, constitutes some of the greatest journalism of all: he told his truth, clearly identified as such and at his own expense, knowing that it was a story that needed to be told.

As “objective” as most of us strive to be, we cannot divorce ourselves from our lives, or how our experiences impact and shape our reporting. (This is part of the reason I prefer the term fairness to objectivity: I’m not sure true objectivity is possible, for anyone, since we are all products of genes and circumstances, experiences and culture and other people. But that’s another discussion, for another time.)

What we can do is pay our respects to those forces. When reporters are given talent and time to tell stories, it is only natural, some time or another, that we tell the story that only we can tell: our own, knowing that we are not alone. We’re millions of other people, but with a platform those millions lack.

For me? As I said in my post on volunteering at Women’s Health Clinic, I am a woman before I am a reporter, and I will still be a woman when my reporting days are done. Nobody has asked me to hide this, be ashamed of it, and when I’ve spoken out in that vein I’ve generally been rewarded.

But Jose Antonio Vargas “broke the law.”

It’s sickening. Because, as Atrios noted:

The story is completely common in this country, it is not amazing because it’s the experience of some fairly well-known journalism guy. It is the experience of a hell of a lot of people. And, yes, if that story can do anything to push sane legislation on immigration that’s wonderful, but it’s the story (roughly) of millions of people.

What Vargas did was what every journalist, in theory, strives to do: tell real stories about real people, about issues that impact real people.

It just so happened that story was also his own, and so he was the one best positioned to tell it, and so he told it and will keep telling it until there are no longer lessons to learn from Jose Antonio Vargas’ life.

“Advocate,” my ass.

  • Winnipeg Girl

    Great article, thanks for bringing it to our (or at least my) attention.   All of the people that claim illegal immigrants are “stealing” their jobs make me laugh - in many cases those people happily (well, happily many not exactly be the right word) work the jobs that “real” Americans (or Canadians as the case may be) refuse to do. Heck, there are the same sort of attitudes toward immigration even when people have the proper papers.

    In Jose’s case he worked damn hard to gain his successes in life, he has even said he pays taxes - I’m never sure why you cannot choose to work in whatever country you would like, especially if you are willing to pay the taxes of that country. I can see perhaps not allowing people to take advantage of benefits that they have not paid into until they pay into the system for a certain amount of time or something like that… ah, forget it, I’ll never be able to articulate my frustration well enough!

    Please give us an update in time as I’m sure you’re likely to follow up on the story. I hope he is not penalized and is allowed to start the process legally from this point forward.

  • Melissa Martin

    For sure. I’m definitely keeping an eye on it. Immigration is complex — especially in the U.S. — and I appreciate that immigration policy and law must balance a lot of competing needs, benefits and risks. But the extent to which undocumented immigrants have been made into scapegoats is galling, since it bears so little connection to reality — and since it’s so worrisome when an entire category of people is turned into an almost unqualified object of anger, derision and scorn.

  • Graham Hnatiuk

    This story is shocking and I’m not sure I’d be able to put a blog post together about it as the whole thing has just made me speechless.

  • Melissa Martin

    It sort of zeroes right in both on A) What’s good about media, sometimes and B) What’s bad about it, doesn’t it?

  • Lewis Yang

    there is no liberal media in the United States. It’s over. That’s why Vargas is the agenda and not his story.

  • Melissa Martin

    Bingo bango.