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Originally published Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 11:22 AM

State DOL cancels driver's license of reporter in country illegally

The state of Washington has canceled the driver's license of a newspaper journalist who in a New York Times Magazine article last month revealed that for 14 years he kept a secret from his U.S. employers: He is an illegal immigrant.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Hilarious! His license is revoked based on non-residency rather than his illegality... Read more
quotes Has he been deported yet? Read more
quotes Washington is alone with New Mexico in granting full driver's licenses to people in the... Read more

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The state of Washington has canceled the driver's license of a journalist who, in a New York Times Magazine article last month, revealed that for 14 years he kept a secret from his U.S. employers: He is an illegal immigrant.

While illegal immigrants can still obtain drivers licenses in Washington, licensing officials said they canceled Jose Antonio Vargas' driver's license because he could not prove that he lived in the state when he obtained it, as required by law.

In a piece he penned under the headline, "My life as an undocumented immigrant," Vargas laid bare details of a life built on lies that started with his arrival as a 12-year-old on a fake passport from the Philippines 18 years ago.

The revelation by someone who doesn't quite match the stereotype of an illegal immigrant sparked new conversations around the divisive issue of immigration and renewed calls for the federal government to address it.

Vargas, who had been sent by his mother to live with his grandparents in California, described how he kept his secret while employed with a series of news organizations, including The Washington Post, where he became part of a team of reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.

He obtained a Washington driver's license weeks before his Oregon license was to expire on his 30th birthday earlier this year.

Washington is alone with New Mexico in granting full driver's licenses to people in the country illegally. Utah issues them only for driving, not for ID purposes. Oregon changed its laws three years ago.

Washington law requires that those who have a Social Security number provide it when they apply for a license but allows those who don't to sign a declaration to that effect. The law does, however, require applicants to live in the state of Washington.

After noticing a surge in out-of-state applicants without Social Security numbers, Department of Licensing officials in November began requiring proof of state residency from any applicant who lacked a Social Security number. Vargas' application never warranted scrutiny because the Social Security number he presented was valid. His grandfather had obtained it for him from the Social Security Administration when he'd first arrived in the U.S.

But the card itself had clearly stated: "Valid for work only with I.N.S. authorization," which means it couldn't be used for employment. Vargas said when he began looking for work, he and his grandfather doctored it to cover up the restriction.

State licensing officials launched an investigation after Vargas' article appeared in the magazine June 22.

They sent a letter to the Northgate-area address he had used when he applied, giving him 20 days to prove his state residency. The letter was returned unopened.

A spokeswoman for Vargas said he had no comment.

In The New York Times article, Vargas said he discovered his illegal standing when he applied for a driver's permit as a teenager in California. His grandfather then admitted to him that he had purchased the green card and other fake documents, Vargas said.

Vargas was hired for internships at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News but was denied one at The Seattle Times because he didn't have proper documents.

He received an offer from The Washington Post.

Because a driver's license was required, Vargas said his network of mentors helped him get one from Oregon.

Brad Benfield, a Washington state Department of Licensing spokesman, said officials canceled the card earlier this week. It means that if Vargas's license is checked by law enforcement or anyone else, he will show up as not having a license at all.

It's not an uncommon step for the department to take.

Benfield said the department has canceled 187 licenses so far this year based on fraud that was discovered through use of facial-recognition technology. In most cases, the drivers had more than one record in the system.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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