Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas Comes Out as Illegal Immigrant to Fight for DREAM Act

PHOTO: Jose Antonio Vargas was interviewed by ABC News Dan Harris.
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For the past decade, Jose Antonio Vargas has pursued success in journalism. In addition to winning a Pulitzer Prize with the Washington Post for his coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, he has also covering a variety of topics including presidential politics, and even scored an exclusive interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Throughout all of his early success, however, Vargas harbored a huge secret: he was living and working in the United States illegally.

"I wasn't supposed to be there. I wasn't supposed to be walking with Mark Zuckerberg. I wasn't supposed to be interviewing Romney's sons. Why was I doing it? Because I wanted to survive. I wanted to live. I wanted to earn what it means to be an American," Vargas told ABC News.

One morning when he was a 12-year-old boy living in the Philippines, Vargas says his mother took him to the airport -- and sent him to America. He arrived in Mountain View, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, where he lived with his grandparents, and soon became a standout student at the local high school.

He says he spent the next four years in the dark about his citizenship status, only realizing the truth when he rode his bike to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where like his friends he wanted to apply for a driver's permit. But Vargas says the DMV told him that his green card was a fake, and warned him not to return.

After peddling home, Vargas confronted his grandfather, who finally told him the truth: he was in the U.S. illegally. It was the first moment of what would become an elaborate -- and all-too-common -- life of secrets, lies and ever-present fear.

"I remember the very first instinct was, okay, that's it, get rid of the accent... 'Because I just thought to myself, you know, I couldn't give anybody any reason to ever doubt that I'm an American," Vargas said.

Watch ABC's Dan Harris' interview with Jose Vargas this Thursday on "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline" and Friday on "Good Morning America"

After furiously studying American movies to shed his accent, he eventually discovered journalism. One motivating factor for Vargas was that if his name appeared at the top of articles, he felt it was less likely that anyone would question his immigration status.

He says he was able to land his early reporting gigs by using a doctored Social Security card his grandfather had obtained for him. But in his early 20s he got a job offer from the Washington Post -- and they told him they needed to see a driver's license.

Vargas managed to obtain one in the state of Oregon, where the laws are more relaxed, by faking documents. He received help in this process by Rich Fischer and Pat Hyland, two high-ranking public school officials in his town, with whom he had become very close during high school.

"You have to do what you have to do," Vargas said. "I wanted to work. I wanted to prove that I was worthy of being here … and I was gonna do whatever it took to prove that."

Vargas was able to obtain the license, and his career quickly took off -- with no one knowing his citizenship status. At one point he was even able to get into the White House using his fake license to cover a state dinner.

"I was nervous," Vargas said of that night. "I keep thinking every time I've done these things -- was somebody gonna catch me?"

The DREAM Act : Hope for Thousands

Yet after all of these years, Vargas is now outing himself as one of the millions in the United States who are living in the country illegally. He is aware of the danger he is putting himself in, and that he could be sent back to the Philippines.

Vargas says that he made up his mind last December when Congress failed to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, a bill that would allow illegal immigrants who came to this country as children to become citizens, if they go to college or serve in the military.

To shine a light on a massive problem, Vargas will be starting an online campaign at defineamerican.com to push for passage of the DREAM Act, which is currently stalled in Congress.

The critics of the DREAM Act say that it will reward undocumented parents, and that it would be an open invitation to fraud, giving an incentive to parents in other countries to come to the U.S. illegally with their children.

"Are we seriously going to deport 11 million people?" Vargas asks. "That's the estimated number of undocumented people in this country. We're not seriously going to do that. We have not had a really serious conversation about this issue.

"We are a part of this society. And I think everyone deserves dignity," he added.

Former Mountain View High principal Pat Hyland, who along with Rich Fisher, the former superintendent of the Mountain View Los-Altos Union school district, helped Vargas in his initial steps towards his career, says that she'd do it all over again to help him reach his potential. Fisher says that fear can't stop kids.

"If you worked with kids that you knew were undocumented and watched them just fade away as they began to approach adulthood, out of fear that they weren't gonna be-- that they'd be found out … The right thing to do is to try to help young people to meet their potential," Fisher told ABC News.

Vargas has certainly reached great heights as a highly ambitious and successful reporter. His goal now is to change a law while changing the outlook of thousands of children whose dream is to become citizens.

"You can call me whatever you want to call me, but I am an American," Vargas said. "No one can take that away from me. No, no one can.

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