Once in the States, he lived with his grandfather, a security guard, and grandmother, a food server. Both were naturalized American citizens who had been supporting Vargas and his mother since Vargas was 3. He'd later learn that his grandfather had paid $4,500 for this purported uncle -- who was a coyote, or people smuggler -- to bring Vargas to the United States under a fake passport and name.
"After I arrived in Mountain View, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, I entered sixth grade and quickly grew to love my new home, family and culture. I discovered a passion for language, though it was hard to learn the difference between formal English and American slang," Vargas wrote for the magazine.
One of his earliest memories, he wrote, was a schoolmate asking him, "What's up?" He replied, "The sky."
Vargas says he didn't know he was in the country illegally until he was 16, when he applied for a driver's license and was told his green card was bogus. He went home and asked his grandfather whether that was true, according to the magazine story.
"Lolo was a proud man, and I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me. 'Don't show it to other people,' he warned," Vargas wrote.
Vargas has written for numerous publications as a journalist, including The New Yorker. He interned for The Seattle Times and worked for The Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News.
In 2008, he was part of the Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its breaking news coverage of the previous year's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. Vargas got bylines on two of the nine stories the Pulitzer board cited.
"Over the past 14 years, I've graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country," he wrote in his 2011 magazine piece. "On the surface, I've created a good life. I've lived the American dream. But I am still an undocumented immigrant."