WASHINGTON — A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the Virginia Tech massacre for the Washington Post went public Wednesday with a secret he has been keeping for nearly two decades: He is an illegal immigrant.
Jose Antonio Vargas tells ABC News in interviews airing Thursday and Friday that he is outing himself as one of millions of illegal U.S. immigrants after living with the secret for years. He also told his story in a New York Times Magazine essay published online Wednesday.
"I'm done running. I'm exhausted," Vargas wrote. "I don't want that life anymore."
He says that now he wants to push Congress to pass a bill called the DREAM Act that would allow people like him to become citizens if they go to college or serve in the military.
He referred a request for comment to his public relations team, which did not immediately make him available Wednesday.
Undocumented since childhood
When Vargas was 12 and living in the Philippines, his mother took him to the airport and sent him to California to live with his grandparents, he said. He didn't know about his citizenship status until four years later, when he applied for a driver's permit and handed a clerk his green card.
"This is fake," a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk said, according to Vargas' account. "Don't come back here again."
Vargas confronted his grandfather, who acknowledged he purchased the green card and other fake documents.
"I remember the very first instinct was, OK, that's it, get rid of the accent," Vargas told ABC. "Because I just thought to myself, you know, I couldn't give anybody any reason to ever doubt that I'm an American."
During high school Vargas said he spent hours watching television shows like "Frasier" and "Home Improvement" to master the American accent.
He convinced himself that if he worked hard enough and achieved enough, he would be rewarded with citizenship, Vargas wrote in the magazine piece.
His grandfather imagined the fake documents would help Vargas get low-wage jobs. College seemed out of reach, until Vargas told Mountain View High School Principal Pat Hyland and school district Superintendent Rich Fisher about his problem. They became mentors and surrogate parents, eventually finding a scholarship fund for high-achieving students that allowed him to attend San Francisco State University.
Internships, then real jobs
To work, Vargas needed a Social Security number, which his grandfather helped him obtain with a fake passport shortly after his arrival in the U.S.
Vargas was hired for internships at The San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. He was denied an internship at The Seattle Times because he didn't have all the documents they required. But he kept applying and got an offer from The Washington Post.
The newspaper required a driver's license, so Vargas said his network of mentors helped him get one from Oregon, which has less stringent requirements than some other states.
Once hired full-time at the Post, he used the license to cover Washington events, including a state dinner at the White House, Vargas recalled.
He wrote that he was nearly paralyzed with anxiety that his secret would be found out at the Post. He tried to avoid reporting on immigration policy, but at times, it was impossible. At one point, he wrote about then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's position on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Vargas eventually told his mentor, Peter Perl, now the newspaper's training director. Perl told him that once he had accomplished more, they would tell then-Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Post Chairman Don Graham together. They kept the secret until Vargas left the paper.
Post condemns his actions
On Wednesday, Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti strongly condemned their actions.
"What Jose did was wrong. What Peter did was wrong," Coratti said, declining to comment further on personnel matters. "We are also reviewing our internal procedures, and we believe this was an isolated incident of deception."
An e-mail seeking comment was sent to Perl.
Vargas shared a Pulitzer Prize for the Post's coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. A 2006 series he wrote on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington inspired a documentary film. Last year, he wrote a profile of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker.
Most recently, he was a senior contributing editor at Huffington Post. He said he left after less than a year and was worried professionally about a looming deadline: the expiration of his 8-year-old Oregon driver's license.
The decision to come clean could cost Vargas. In an interview with The Atlantic, David Leopold, an immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said: "Vargas's article amounts to a confession of several offenses at the state and federal level."
Just before he turned 30 this year, Vargas said he obtained a Washington state driver's license, which would have given him a five-year reprieve — and meant five more years of lying. He said he couldn't deal with that.
On Wednesday, Vargas launched a campaign called Define American to use stories of immigrants like himself with a goal to "elevate the national discourse" with an honest dialogue about immigration. His high school principal and superintendent have signed on as board members.
Msnbc.com staff contributed to this report from The Associated Press.