Today, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an illegal immigrant in a sweeping confessional in The New York Times Magazine. The piece intends to influence the debate over illegal immigration in the U.S. However, outing himself as an illegal immigrant could greatly influence the way he lives his life, according to David Leopold, an immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Leopold says Vargas's article amounts to a confession of several offenses at the state and federal level.
"I think he has taken a huge personal risk by coming forward," says Leopold. "For example, he admits that he checked 'U.S. citizen' on his I-9 forms. This is a serious civil violation for which there is no waiver under the immigration law as written. If it is construed as a false claim to US citizenship, it could lead to criminal sanctions. The same would hold true for knowingly using a false social security card, drivers license etc. There could be a statute of limitations defense depending on when these occurred. But, nevertheless, it could lead to prosecution and or deportation proceedings."
Update: Asked if Vargas has consulted attorneys about the legal risks of his disclosures, his spokesperson Matthew Hiltzik said, "Jose recognizes there are no guarantees about what comes next."
There are also ramifications for Vargas's professional career to consider. "Obviously if they know he's undocumented they can't pay," said Leopold, referring to media companies interested in hiring Vargas and publishing his work in the future. Throughout his professional life, Vargas has sustained himself through his journalism, working as a staff reporter for The Washington Post, which he left for The Huffington Post in 2009, and writing freelance pieces (of particular note, his sprawling profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker last September). Now working as a staff reporter or even a freelancer will be much more difficult. "You can't hire an independent contractor knowing he's undocumented," Leopold tells The Atlantic Wire. "But federal officials won't prevent him from speaking out. He can write without pay. He can publish online. His First Amendment rights are still intact."
As for whether Vargas would be detained, Leopold couldn't say for certain. "Vargas said he's undocumented so he can be taken into custody and put into removal proceedings." he said. However, Leopold noted that Vargas's exposure would likely make federal officials reluctant to pursue him. "He's outspoken in The New York Times, he's drawn considerable attention to his story. It's very difficult for the immigration machinery to operate in front of someone that's that public." The machinery Leopold is referring to is U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which he says "is very sensitive to its public image."
In his article, Vargas explains that his mother sent him on an airplane to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 12 years-old. He was raised by his grandparents in Mountain View, California and became a stellar student in high school but had to constantly lie about his citizenship. "I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it," he wrote. "But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality." Interestingly, The Washington Post had the opportunity to publish Vargas's bombshell story but declined. "We made a judgment not to run the piece," Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said to The Huffington Post. "We think it is a really interesting first person account and we’re glad he found a place to share his story." We asked The Post if Vargas's immigration status played a role in their decision and will update if we hear back. Update: The Post declined to comment. The New York Times, on the other hand, explained its rationale for publishing the Vargas story in a blog post on its website. According to the telling of Chris Suellentrop, story editor for the Times magazine, concerns about Vargas's citizenship weren't a factor.