When former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a widely read New York Times Magazine essay, he committed a cardinal sin of journalism: He made himself the story. In the process he triggered a renewed debate about immigration, one that is moving back to the center stage with the upcoming debate in Iowa on Saturday night.
Having leaped with both feet onto one of the third rails of American politics, Vargas is in Iowa to engage Republican voters and candidates directly on the issue. On Friday he was ejected by police from a Mitt Romney event in Cedar Rapids, where he was carrying a sign that stated: "I am an American without papers."
"I was not causing a ruckus," Vargas tweeted. "I was merely trying to ask a question, which is what a journalist does."
The Romney campaign responded that Vargas "was attending as an activist, not a journalist," and indeed, he doesn't have media credentials this time around. He will be blogging and interviewing voters and candidates as part of his new organization, Define American, which he co-founded to raise awareness for the nearly 12 million undocumented workers who live in the shadows. "This is way bigger than me," Vargas told me by phone this week as he was packing for his trip. "At the very beginning, I wanted to make sure people know this isn't a vanity act."
So far this primary cycle, any hint of a nuanced immigration policy has been a no-go zone for GOP candidates. Rick Perry never quite recovered when he was booed at a CNN/tea party debate for granting in-state tuition to the children of undocumented workers. Current front-runner Newt Gingrich's "humane" immigration policy opened him up to charges that he supports amnesty. Although Gingrich said he was "prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane," he almost immediately toughened up his rhetoric with talk of limited guest worker permits and a massive border fence.
Last time around, Vargas, then a Post reporter, was driving around Iowa trying to suppress his anxiety that he'd be pulled over by police and busted for being illegal. "It was surreal being in Iowa three years ago," he said. "I remember going pheasant hunting with Huckabee the morning after Christmas. Huckabee was a pretty progressive governor on immigration. When he ran for the primaries, all of a sudden you have to cater to the conservative base. And I remember being in that setting thinking, 'What if I ask Huckabee about his position on immigration?"
Vargas never did ask the question, afraid of drawing attention to his illegal status. But now that he's come clean, he's hoping to draw as much attention to the issue as he can. Recently, he traveled around conducting interviews in Alabama, which had passed the country's most restrictive immigration law, which made it a felony to be an illegal immigrant.
The other big difference in Iowa is this time he won't be driving. In July, a month after he revealed in the Times Magazine how he obtained an illegal driver's license, Washington State revoked his license. Vargas now travels around with a NYU student named Ann Lupo who serves as both his driver and videographer.
Publicizing his status has attracted unlikely supporters. A few months earlier, Vargas had written a profile of Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker that criticized Aaron Sorkin for misrepresenting Zuckerberg in The Social Network. So when Vargas woke up the morning after the news about his license broke, he was surprised that the first e-mail he received was from Sorkin.
"He basically said, 'if you ever need a ride somewhere, let me know.'"