A journalist who shared in a Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post's coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre went public Wednesday with a secret he has been keeping for nearly two decades: He is an illegal immigrant.
Jose Antonio Vargas, whose mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in California when he was 12, says that now he wants to push Congress to pass a bill called the DREAM Act that would allow people like him to become citizens if they go to college or serve in the military.
"I'm done running. I'm exhausted," Vargas wrote in a New York Times Magazine essay posted online Wednesday. "I don't want that life anymore."
Vargas, 30, referred a request for comment from the Associated Press to his public relations team, which did not immediately make him available Wednesday. He also spoke to ABC News in interviews that will air today and Friday.
He says he didn't know about his citizenship status until four years after he arrived in the United States., when he applied for a driver's permit and handed a clerk his green card.
"This is fake," a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk said, according to Vargas' account. "Don't come back here again."
Vargas confronted his grandfather, who acknowledged that he purchased the green card and other fake documents.
"I remember the very first instinct was, OK, that's it, get rid of the accent," Vargas told ABC. "Because I just thought to myself, you know, I couldn't give anybody any reason to ever doubt that I'm an American."
He convinced himself that if he worked hard enough and achieved enough, he would be rewarded with citizenship, Vargas wrote in the magazine article.
His grandfather imagined that the fake documents would help Vargas get low-wage jobs. College seemed out of reach, until Vargas told Mountain View High School Principal Pat Hyland and School Superintendent Rich Fisher about his problem. They became mentors and surrogate parents, eventually finding a scholarship fund for high-achieving students that allowed him to attend San Francisco State University.
Vargas was hired for internships at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. He was denied an internship at the Seattle Times because he didn't have all the documents they required. But he kept applying and got an offer from the Post.
The newspaper required a driver's license, so Vargas said his network of mentors helped him get one from Oregon.
Once hired full time at the Post, he used the fake license to cover Washington events, including a state dinner at the White House, Vargas recalled.
He wrote that he was nearly paralyzed with anxiety that his secret would be found out at the Post. He tried to avoid reporting on immigration policy, but at times, it was impossible. At one point, he wrote about then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's position on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
Vargas eventually told his mentor, Peter Perl, now the newspaper's training director. Perl told him that once he had accomplished more, they would tell then-Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Post Chairman Donald E. Graham together. They kept the secret until Vargas left the newspaper.
Wednesday, Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti condemned the actions of Vargas and Perl. "What Jose did was wrong. What Peter did was wrong," Coratti said, declining to comment further.
The Post originally planned to publish Vargas' article but decided against it.
Vargas shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for the Post's coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre a year earlier. A 2006 series he wrote on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington inspired a documentary film. Last year, he wrote a profile of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker magazine.
Most recently, Vargas was a senior contributing editor at the Huffington Post. He said he left after less than a year and was worried professionally about a looming deadline: the expiration of his 8-year-old Oregon driver's license.