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Ruben Navarrett Jr / Politics

A Journalist Without Papers

SAN DIEGO -- Jose Antonio Vargas is one of the most well-known illegal immigrants in the country. But what he wants you to know is that he is first and foremost a journalist.

"People say I'm an advocate and an activist," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm a journalist who is trying to tell the fullest story I possibly can."

Last year, the 31-year-old native of the Philippines became the story when he went public with his undocumented status. At the time, I criticized him for making the difficult job of minority journalists who are thought to have hidden agendas even more difficult by keeping his secret. While some within the inside-the-Beltway press corps seemed to suggest that Vargas -- because he was a professional -- shouldn't be deported, I argued that he should have been.

Recently, Vargas and I had the chance to clear the air.

"I hope you don't think that I take away something from journalism," he told me. "This is my church, the one that I've been praying to since I found out that I was 'illegal' and not supposed to be here. Being a journalist means so much to me. I wear it with pride. It's why I feel such a responsibility to tell the immigration story in full."

He should be proud. Vargas was part of a Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for covering the breaking story of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. He is a good storyteller who, he is quick to point out, had a reporting life before coming out as undocumented last year in an essay for The New York Times Magazine.

Now he wants to challenge other members of the media: "As journalists, we have so many things to cover, so much information, so many things to do. But collectively, I do not think that we have told the complete immigration story."

That includes me. After my column ran, Vargas "friended" me on Facebook and suggested we talk. Only several months later did he agree to a formal interview.

It gave him a chance to reflect.

"There are times that I wish I wasn't this person, that I was just reporting on this person," he said. "It would make it easier. I do think I am a pretty good journalist, and it's my job to tell the whole immigration story and report the hell out of it."

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Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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