Last summer, when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an illegal immigrant in The New York Times Magazine, an obvious question arose: Isn't he going to be deported now? The fact that he confessed to lying about his citizenship status in a national media outlet while criticizing U.S. immigration policies seemed to welcome a visit from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Turns out, one year later, Vargas is now asking the same question. "Why, indeed, am I still here?" he writes in this week's Time cover story.
As we reported last summer, Vargas's confession wasn't just a risk-free PR stunt to raise awareness for his cause; It contained genuinely incriminating details. "I think he has taken a huge personal risk by coming forward," David Leopold, an immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association told us at the time. Leopold ticked off a range of unlawful activities Vargas had admitted to, including knowingly using a false social security card and driver's license, and checking 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," he said. It turns out, the legal black cloud looming over Vargas' head has been getting to him. He writes in Time this week:
I spend every day wondering what, if anything, the government plans to do with me.... Before I came out, the question always at the top of my mind was, What will happen if people find out? Afterward, the question changed to What happens now? It seemed I had traded a largely hidden undocumented life in limbo for an openly undocumented life that’s still in limbo
Despite the fact that the Obama administration deported a record 396,906 in fiscal year 2011, Vargas wasn't one of them. Eventually, the anticipation overwhelmed him and he couldn't help but confront I.C.E. himself and ask why they hadn't come for him. As you can imagine, the local New York City I.C.E. office was a bit startled when they found out his reason for calling:
“Are you planning on deporting me?” I asked.
I quickly found out that even though I publicly came out about my undocumented status, I still do not exist in the eyes of ICE. Like most undocumented immigrants, I’ve never been arrested. Therefore, I’ve never been in contact with ICE.
“After checking the appropriate ICE databases, the agency has no records of ever encountering Mr. Vargas,” Luis Martinez, a spokesman for the ICE office in New York, wrote me in an e-mail.
I then contacted the ICE headquarters in Washington. I hoped to get some insight into my status and that of all the others who are coming out. How does ICE view these cases? Can publicly revealing undocumented status trigger deportation proceedings, and if so, how is that decided? Is ICE planning to seek my deportation?
“We do not comment on specific cases,” is all I was told.
Unfortunately for Vargas, he isn't left with any more answers. "I am still here. Still in limbo," he laments in his final paragraph. It sounds like I.C.E. is basically a black box that isn't going to give him more information. But certainly, there are strong incentives for the agency to avoid a confrontation with Vargas. As Leopold told us last year, the agency is "very sensitive to its public image." Given Vargas's high profile, it's clear any initiating of removal proceedings would become a national story. "He's outspoken in The New York Times, he's drawn considerable attention to his story," said Leopold. "It's very difficult for the immigration machinery to operate in front of someone that's that public."