Former Washington Post reporter Jose Vargas is a successful young journalist. He was part of a reporting team that won a Pulitzer for covering the Virginia Tech massacre, he wrote a well-regarded profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker, and he’s written for numerous outlets around the country, including the Post, the Huffington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
While all these things have been well known for some time, what has been a secret up until last week was that Vargas is an undocumented immigrant who entered the United States illegally from the Philippines.
He outed himself in a first-person article for the New York Times Magazine. In it, he tells the story of how he came to the US as a 12-year-old boy to live with his grandparents in Silicon Valley. He did not know that he had entered the country on forged papers until he took his supposed green card to the DMV at age 16 to get his drivers permit, and was told that his card was fake and that he should not come back again.
As he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Monday, Vargas was supposed to work shadow economy jobs until he could find an American citizen to marry and get a permanent residency permit that way. Only one problem: When Vargas was in high school, he came out publicly as being gay. So while he was out of the closet as a gay male, he remained secretive about his immigration status.
Vargas initially offered his story to the Washington Post, but the paper turned him down. (Why is not entirely clear.) So when the Post didn’t take it, Vargas offered the story to the New York Times Magazine, which jumped at the chance. The editors went so far as “tear up” the completed magazine and put the Vargas story on the cover.
The story of Vargas and his outing of himself has caused a fair amount of controversy in journalistic circles because Vargas has been lying about his immigration status for his entire adult life. And lying is rather looked down on by journalists. Phil Bronstein, who had hired Vargas to write for the Chronicle, writes that he felt duped by Vargas, especially since Vargas wrote about the experiences of undocumented workers without mentioning that he was one himself. On the other hand, Bronstein hopes that Vargas’ story may lead to meaningful immigration reform:
But if he can come out, the force of his story – both good reaction and bad – and his project just might lubricate the politically tarred-up wheels of government and help craft sane immigration policy. If it has that effect, we should forgive him his lies.
After writing about all of this, I’m left with this central ethical conflict: A journalist lying about his or her identity is always troubling for any reason. But if Vargas had not lied about who he was, he could not have been a reporter. This is, at its core, the definition of an ethical problem. Because ethics are all about what you do when no answer seems right, when all answers are problematic, when telling the whole truth stands in the way of telling any truth.