Washington State Cancels Driver's License of Illegal Immigrant Reporter

July 22, 2011 - 3:43 AM

Journalist Illegal Immigrant

FILE - In this June 28, 2011 file photo, journalist and immigration reform activist Jose Antonio Vargas is shown on Capitol Hill in Washington. Washington state has canceled the driver's license of the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who publicly said he is an illegal immigrant (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

SEATTLE (AP) — Washington state has canceled the driver's license of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who attracted national attention with his disclosure that he is an illegal immigrant.

Department of Licensing spokeswoman Christine Anthony said Thursday that officials opened an investigation after Jose Antonio Vargas' essay about his background was published in the New York Times Magazine in June.

Vargas wrote in his essay that he emigrated from the Philippines in 1993 when he was 12 years old at the wish of his mother. He moved to California, where his grandparents had arranged forged documents for him. When he was 16, Vargas wrote, he found out that he was in the country illegally after he tried to obtain a driver's permit with those documents.

He said that he obtained a driver's license in Washington earlier this year after his Oregon license expired.

"We conducted in an investigation and concluded that he wasn't residing at the address he provided us," Anthony said.

The Licensing Department sent Vargas a letter requesting proof of residency, and the letter was returned. The state canceled his license July 18.

In his essay, Vargas wrote about worrying that his Oregon license would expire when he turned 30.

"Early this year, just two weeks before my 30th birthday, I won a small reprieve: I obtained a driver's license in the state of Washington. The license is valid until 2016. This offered me five more years of acceptable identification — but also five more years of fear, of lying to people I respect and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am," Vargas wrote.

Because Vargas didn't surrender his license, he will still have a card that he presumably can still use to board an airplane or obtain other services that require ID. But if authorities run a background check, for example if Vargas gets pulled over while driving, it will show that the license is not valid, Anthony said.

The Seattle Times first reported the Licensing Department's action Thursday.

Vargas was part of the Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. He had also interned for The San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News, and most recently was a senior contributing editor at Huffington Post.

His coming out as an illegal immigrant attracted national attention and put a spotlight on what his former employers knew of his legal status. A Washington Post spokesman called Vargas' actions "wrong."

But he wrote that he's tired of hiding his secret and has launched a campaign called Define American to use stories of immigrants like him to urge Congress and the Obama administration to pursue immigration reform. His high school principal and superintendent have signed on as board members.

Vargas did not respond to an email sent by The Associated Press. A spokesman pointed to a blog post on Vargas' campaign website in which he said he learned Wednesday that his license had been revoked and it was a reminder of the "collective struggle" immigrants like him face.

"It's not unexpected, given how I laid out in detail how I've been able to live, work and survive as an undocumented immigrant in our country," he said. "Still, it's a sad feeling. In some ways, my driver's license has been my life line."

He continued, "However, I believe it is a small price to pay relative to the big things we're going to do, together."

Washington and New Mexico are the two states that don't require driver's license applicants to furnish a Social Security number.

Washington's Department of Licensing said last week that fewer out-of-state people who didn't provide a Social Security number have sought to obtain a driver's license in the state. The recent data suggest stricter rules Washington implemented in the past year are deterring illegal immigrants from getting licenses.

The new rules no longer allow cellphone or cable bills as proof of residency, but the state still accepts identification from other countries among the documents required in lieu of a Social Security number.

The department's data show that in the first half of 2011, 5,346 people didn't provide a Social Security number when obtaining a license. In all of 2010, more than 23,000 did not.

Other data show that the department has canceled 372 licenses due to fraud in 2011. A total of 717 were canceled in 2010.

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Associated Press writer Mike Baker in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.