In the first-person account, Vargas recalls learning of his immigration status at age 16 when he took his green card to the Mountain View DMV to get a driver's license. He was shocked to learn that his green card was fake and that his grandparents had paid $4,500 to bring him to the U.S. in 1993 with a fake passport.
In the article Vargas, 30, says he is tired of keeping a significant part of himself a secret and admits to using fake documents throughout his life and to get jobs at the Washington Post and Huffington Post.
"I tried to compartmentalize my fears, distract myself by reporting on the lives of other people, but there was no escaping the central conflict in my life," Vargas writes. "Maintaining a deception for so long distorts your sense of self. You start wondering who you've become, and why."
Before that realization, Vargas said he had convinced himself "that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it."
After getting his start as an intern at the Mountain View Voice in high school, Vargas has had much success as a journalist, interviewing the likes of Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and more recently Mark Zuckerberg for an article about Facebook in the New Yorker. He won his Pulitzer Prize as a member of the team that covered the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
Vargas has launched a website, defineamerican.com, and he aims to help create a public discussion about immigration in America. "We have not had a credible discussion about immigration in this country," Vargas told Rachel Maddow in an appearance on her TV show Monday. On Facebook, Vargas now lists Define American as his employer. The website includes a video about his story.
Vargas says that the first person he told about his situation was Jill Denny, his chorale music director at Mountain View High School. The choir was set for a trip to Japan, so Vargas told Denny he couldn't afford it. When she replied that they would find a way to pay for him, he finally admitted, "I don't have the right passport, I'm not supposed to be here. But Ms. Denny got it. The next day she told me the choir was going to Hawaii instead."
Denny told the Voice that her reaction was that she was "glad to have the info" because she would have kept trying to help him go to Japan.
"It doesn't matter in education where kids come from," she said. "It is our job to educate them and move them forward and keep them safe. I can't imagine any other teacher feeling differently."
Vargas also gives credit to former MVHS principal Pat Hyland and former Mountain View school superintendent Rich Fisher, a relationship he describes in a 2008 Voice article. He calls them both members of his personal "underground railroad."
"For more than a decade now Pat and Rich have been with me every step of the way, guiding me and supporting me as I've tried to define what it means to be an American," Vargas says.
Vargas says he has been inspired by the courage of those campaigning for the legal status of students with the DREAM Act.
The New York Times magazine decided to publish the story despite concerns that Vargas could be deported. The Washington Post, Vargas' former employer, was initially set to publish the story but decided not to at the last minute, for unknown reasons.
"Lawyers told me not to publish the story at all," Vargas said on NPR's All Things Considered. "One of them told me it was like legal suicide."
Vargas now has a team of lawyers from the Filipino American legal defense fund who are "trying to make sure that whatever happens, detainment, deportation, that we're ready for it."