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illegal immigrant with a pulitzer prize
something's wrong with this picture
by reem al-omari (@Reemawi)

I am livid.

I'm livid, because there is such a thing as a Pulitzer Prize-winning illegal immigrant.

I'm livid, because my Twitter feed is filled with words like "brave," "courageous" and "compelling," when referring to the story of a person who I see as nothing but a lucky conman.

I am not tackling the explosive issue of immigration here, I am tackling the issue of just handing out adjectives like "brave" and "courageous," and forgetting the essence of their meaning. Brave and courageous should only be given to those who take an action without any known benefit to themselves.

As Plato told us in his writings, Socrates said: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” I know nothing about other people's situations when trying to make better lives for themselves and their children.

I only know what I went through to become a naturalized American citizen.

I only know that I went through all the proper and legal channels to be able to go to public school, go to college and obtain jobs in this country. I only know that it took me four years to become a citizen after my green card had expired. I only know that during those four years, I got worthless letter after worthless letter from immigration while I waited for just one to tell me “You won't have to leave this country.”

I only know that my brother was separated from us for seven years, we didn't see him for seven years, because we wanted to obey the law.

Nobody ever called me or what my family went through brave or courageous. Our story wasn't even compelling. But that's really fine. No need to pat someone on the back for doing the right, legal thing. My parents raised me to always do the right thing and not expect more than an approving nod for doing what ought to be natural. They were great examples of that.

Jose Antonio Vargas is different from me. About the only things we have in common are that we both came to the US before we were teenagers, went to school here, were good spellers, got jobs, and entered writing fields.

Then all the similarities stop, and my anger begins to boil. Then I'm livid.

I read Vargas's piece that he wrote for The New York Times Magazine, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” this “Unbelievable, brave, compelling story of @joseiswriting's life as an undocumented immigrant,” as one Twitter user put it.

As I read through it, my blood wasn't only boiling, it was beginning to evaporate.

I am nothing if not sympathetic to the human condition. I thank God every day that I am not in a position where I am required to make a decision that could make or break a person.

I don't want Vargas to break.

After all, he didn't choose to be sent by his mother to live with his grandparents when he was 12 years old, but I still feel like he didn't do the right thing when he could have; after he found out the truth behind his existence in this country, that his grandfather, a naturalized American citizen, had gotten him all kinds of fake documents.

In his piece, he says that he was not aware that he was in the U.S. illegally until he was 16 years old, when he went to the D.M.V to obtain a learner's permit. The lady at the D.M.V only whispered to him that the green card he'd handed her was fake and to leave and not come back.

That was Vargas's first stroke of luck in a series of them that landed him many opportunities that served as stepping stones to this milestone in his life; being in the spotlight today, not as a conman, but as a brave and courageous individual with a compelling story to tell. This milestone of finally being able to unload guilt he said he'd started feeling ever since that trip to the D.M.V.

He said that as consolation, he felt that if he worked hard enough and proved himself, that he would be rewarded with a citizenship, but continued with the lies and fraud past legal age, through which he landed a scholarship, internships, jobs and a piece of a Pulitzer Prize.

Again, Vargas didn't choose this path, but it was a path that, with genuine guilt and morality, would've been one a brave and courageous person would've veered away from, especially after being legally old enough to make his own decisions, to make right what his mother and grandparents did wrong.

You may think Vargas's story is one of courage and bravery, a story that is compelling and one that gives you warm fuzzies about the American dream, but in my eyes, a Pulitzer Prize is being shared with a conman, a pathological conning criminal, who took a big bite of a pie not meant for him and didn't feel compelled to come clean until he'd had it made, and only after a group of illegal immigrant kids marched from Miami to Washington to let their voices be heard in support of the Dream Act.

Again, I am not tackling the issue of immigration here, I am tackling the issue of applauding a conman for getting away with what is a crime.

I am the first person to stand up for those who came to this country to find a better life, but lacked access to the proper channels. I'm sure that if those people had the same resources and people with clout willing to help them like Vargas, they would take that help and do something honest with it, because they are already doing something honest by trying to survive doing things hard on the human soul with no reward in sight other than food on the table.

I haven't heard much about those marching kids, but they are the brave and courageous heroes, who deserve the big bite of the pie Vargas took with his undeniable talent in writing as well as fraud.

Don't even get me started on those who enabled him... .


Reem lives and writes about it. She thinks that's what writers do, anyway. If it's not, then she also has a degree in journalism under her belt, along with the titles of reporter, editor (in chief, even) and, of course, opinion columnist.

more about reem al-omari


the double-standard
sometimes it's about offense
by reem al-omari
topic: news
published: 4.20.07

a story of three billboards
what the world needs now is tact and diplomacy
by reem al-omari
topic: news
published: 2.29.12


juli mccarthy
6.29.11 @ 12:13p

Well done, Reem. There is no denying the man's abilities, but he DID take advantage of the system and his gains are ill-gotten because of that.

reem al-omari
6.30.11 @ 2:21a

And what makes it all the more wrong is that it wasn't just stuff falling into his lap. He actively went out, acquired and passed off fake documents to move along. I wouldn't be so offended if he was just riding on luck alone, but he had all kinds of premeditated enablers, people and documentation. To come out with the truth now is, from a philosophical standpoint, is like a serial killer using temporary insanity as a defense and asking for acquittal.

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