New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has started a national discourse regarding immigration with his admission last Wednesday that he does not have papers allowing him to live in the United States.
In doing so, he has sparked mixed reactions among Filipino journalists and community members after coming out last Sunday in his New York Times Magazine article as being no longer “TNT,” tago nang tago, the Tagalog expression meaning “always in hiding.”
Initial Fear and Shock
Fear and shock were the initial reactions to Vargas’ coming out within the Filipino community, according to Bing Branigin, director of media outreach for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations. Vargas’ parents brought him to the United States when he was 12.
“It was like, ‘What?!’ They’re shocked, surprised and now more like fear, like what’s going to happen to him,” said Branigin.
Other Filipinos see it as “another Filipino trying to make it in America illegally,” according to some Filipinos interviewed by Don Tagala, a news reporter and videographer for ABS-CBN.
Many Filipinos lacking U.S. papers fear the suspicion Vargas’ case may cause will be directed at Filipino immigrants.
“Some undocumented Filipinos wish he [Vargas] should’ve just shut up,” Tagala said several told him. Fearing that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will start pursuing them, he said, “They’re more afraid now that he has told his story. Filipinos are not going to live a quiet life being undocumented.”
Among Filipino journalists, however, “reactions were mostly positive,” said Esther Chavez, U.S. sales director at Inquirer.net. “The only negative maybe the apprehension that more scrutiny will be made on journalists applying or already employed.” Undocumented Filipino journalists echoed similar concerns.
“They are worried that what Jose did will shine a light on undocumented journalists. Many of the Filipino reporters are just trying to work and live in the shadows,” said Cristina Pastor, founding editor of The FilAm, a new online magazine for Filipino Americans in New York.
Another concern is how Filipino journalists will cover Vargas in the news.
“What makes it shocking is that we’re used to writing about everyone else, and now we’re writing about one of our own,” said Pastor.
Veteran Filipino journalist Benjamin Pimentel, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle, called Vargas “one gutsy pinoy” in an article in the “Global Nation” section for Inquirer.net.
Other journalists expressed frustration with the initial slow attention placed to ethnic media by Vargas’ public relations team.
“I can understand why they’re trying to get the mainstream media [interested], but I didn’t understand why they kept him away from us,” said Tagala. “We’re media too and I didn’t understand why. I’m sure they have their strategy.”
Despite the mixed reactions from some Filipino media members, Filipino community organizers have continued to voice support for Vargas.
“No Turning Back”
“There is no turning back. As a Filipino community we are going to stand with him. We take care of our family. We’re tired of hiding like rats,” said Branigin.
Vargas’ national spotlight may have saved him from possible action by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a memorandum issued by John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, clarifying that the priorities of ICE are on undocumented immigrants, who present a danger to national security.
“His story is not the typical Filipino undocumented story. The overall feeling is that because he is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has professional connections he will get special treatment. Nobody deports a Pulitzer winner,” Pastor asserted.
Vargas says he is exploring all options with his attorney, and the outcome, Pulitzer Prize or not, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, he is remaining active.
Last Tuesday, Vargas was among 200 undocumented immigrants, who attended the U.S. Senate’s first hearing in the nation’s capital for the Dream Act. The proposed federal legislation would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrant youth, who graduate from high school and enrolling in a college or university, or enlisting for two years of military service.
Although Vargas did not speak at the Senate hearing, he delivered a speech at a mock graduation the following.
Tagala was “really surprised at how the Dreamers reacted” to Vargas’ presence at the Senate hearing for the Dream Act and the mock graduation. “It seemed like he was a big celebrity. They really appreciate what he did. They see him as a hero, an idol for coming out,” Tagala said.