This time last year, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas wrote a wholly non-trivial personal essay for the New York Times Magazine titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” In it, he told the story of arriving in the United States from the Philippines at the age of 12, but not learning until the age of 16 that his paperwork was fake. From that unsettling revelation, he went on to a successful career as a reporter, and even gained entrance to the White House with his bogus Social Security number, all the while holding in his huge secret. Following the blockbuster article, everyone — Vargas included — started counting down the days until his deportation. Not only has it not happened yet, but Vargas is testing his luck by appearing on another magazine cover.
In Time this week, Vargas is front and center again, this time in a piece called, “Not Legal Not Leaving.” He begins with the question on everybody’s mind:
’Why haven’t you gotten deported?’
That’s usually the first thing people ask me when they learn I’m an undocumented immigrant or, put more rudely, an “illegal.” Some ask it with anger or frustration, others with genuine bafflement. At a restaurant in Birmingham, not far from the University of Alabama, an inebriated young white man challenged me: “You got your papers?” I told him I didn’t. “Well, you should get your ass home, then.” In California, a middle-aged white woman threw up her arms and wanted to know: “Why hasn’t Obama dealt with you?
Vargas goes on to write, “I spend every day wondering what, if anything, the government plans to do with me,” and describes flat-out asking the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency what his deal is. He gets no substantial answers, comforting or otherwise.
How could that be, when hundreds of thousands of so-called “illegals” are deported every year? The publicity could very well be helping his cause, as counterintuitive as it might initially seem. Vargas, who timed the launch of his Define American project to the first story, has “drawn considerable attention to his story,” immigration attorney David Leopold told the Atlantic Wire. The agency is “very sensitive to its public image,” Leopold added. “It’s very difficult for the immigration machinery to operate in front of someone that’s that public.” While Vargas’s dedication to activism through his craft for the cause — which affects millions — is admirable, a second magazine article might also be interpreted as a risky dare.