Katherine Vargas, White House Hispanic Media Director, Says Adiós

Image: Katherine Vargas
Katherine Vargas, director of Hispanic Media for the White House, photographed on Nov. 12, 2015.André Chung / for NBC News

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Sandra Lilley

Katherine Vargas is happily leaving one thing behind at the White House, and that is her ever-present blackberry. "I am happy to let 'him' go," she said with a laugh.

Vargas, 32, is leaving her job as White House Director of Hispanic Media, moving on to a position as public affairs manager for Google.

In an interview with NBC Latino, Vargas said she will miss being in the "front row seat" during historical moments, speaking out on U.S.-Cuba policy changes, the rollout of health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, or the information surrounding executive actions on immigration.

She also reflected on her own unlikely journey. "When I moved here I hardly spoke any English, and to be thinking that fast forward to 2015 I would be in the Oval Office with the President - not in a million years," she said.

Katherine Vargas, outgoing director of Hispanic Media for the White House, in front of the White House on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015.André Chung / for NBC News

Vargas immigrated from Colombia with her parents when she was 14. A sister who came to the U.S. years earlier was able to sponsor them, and Vargas became a citizen in 2009. Like many other immigrant families, her parents had to start over when they came to the U.S.; her mom and dad did manual labor and she worked and obtained scholarships to afford college.

Years later, she was on Air Force One on the way to the Summit of the Americas - as part of the American delegation.

"Being able to travel with the president to the Latin American summit was like a nice full circle in terms of my own history and my history as a Colombian immigrant," she said.

Vargas has been responsible for disseminating the administration's policies to Spanish-language media as well as the growing number of English-language Latino outlets. On certain topics, there are key differences between what is more relevant to Latino versus mainstream media; Vargas cited Latin American policy and immigration as examples.

When the administration was rolling out the deferred deportation executive actions for young immigrants, (DACA), the messaging for mainstream news outlets centered more around explaining the legality of the program, she said. For Hispanic media, the information was more practical.

"They already knew we had a broken immigration system," said Vargas, who worked at several national immigration advocacy organizations before joining the administration. "The questions were 'how can I apply,' 'will I qualify,'" as well as information on how to avoid "notario" fraud.

On the administration's record on immigration, Vargas concedes it "still seems like unfinished business," though she pointed out a few times it was Congress who has not moved the needle on bipartisan legislation.

Katherine Vargas, director of Hispanic Media for the White House, is leaving for a new job at Google.André Chung / for NBC News

She and others in the administration have had to grapple with strong criticism from those opposed to Obama's deportation policies. She defended the president, saying his enforcement priorities were more focused and targeted unlike previous administration's tactics, such as ICE raids on worksites.

Vargas also recalled one of the historic "firsts" at the White House. "To be able to witness the first time that a President met DREAMers and families of undocumented immigrants in the Oval Office was a very powerful experience and just shows how great this country is," she said. She credits Obama for being a "transformational" president and praised the work of Domestic Policy Advisor and fellow Latina Cecilia Muñoz.

In the last year, Vargas has had to brief Hispanic media on one of the more significant foreign-policy shifts in decades.

"My work on Cuba has been by far the most rewarding and most moving for me - nobody would have imagined it for so many years," said Vargas. Beyond specific policy and events - witnessing the raising of the American flag in Cuba and the meeting between Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro - she said it was also about working to achieve closer cultural connections, such as bringing the first Cuban musical group in more than five decades to play at the White House.

Katherine Vargas at the White House, Nov. 12, 2015André Chung / for NBC News

Vargas grew up in South Florida after leaving Colombia, so she said she understood and was very aware of the profound impact that these policy changes would have on Cuban-American families, as well as those in Cuba.

It is understanding those cultural connections that she says are key to working with Hispanic media. Yet it's also important not to relegate Latino journalists to just certain issues; "Hispanics are part of mainstream society as well," Vargas said.

Amid breaking news and demands from reporters on deadline for more information, Vargas advises her successor to keep things in perspective.

"When you think the crisis is going to keep getting bigger, remember this too shall pass, the news cycle will move forward the next day."

Follow NBC News Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.