The Washington Post Building
The Washington Post Building

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When journalist Jose Antonio Vargas revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times, immigration law experts said it was unlikely that Vargas would be deported. (Federal officials aren’t required by law to take action against him, though they could.) Instead, he could face civil and criminal penalties for concealing his undocumented status. And as it turns out, his former employers at The Washington Post could be subject to similar prosecution.

According to Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Post may face fines and other penalties for employing an undocumented immigrant.

Williams notes that although Vargas presented the Post with a phony Oregon driver’s license, the paper was not liable simply for hiring someone who used false identification. But that changed when Vargas revealed his status to Peter Perl, his then-mentor and assistant managing editor of newsroom personnel.

“At that point, there’s possible liability for continuing to employ an undocumented immigrant,” Williams says.

Employers face fines between $275 and $2,200 for keeping an undocumented immigrant on staff, according to Williams. The amount of the fine is based on subjective factors: how blatant was the violation? Who else in the Post newsroom was aware of Vargas’ status? Williams explained that his revelation to a member of management makes it more likely the Post could face a maximum fine.

“It would be a very different thing if he was sitting at a lunch table and told a colleague and that colleague was not in management,” she says.

These fines also assume that Vargas’ case is a first offense for the Post. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigates and is able to establish a pattern of undocumented immigrants working in the newsroom, Williams says, the paper could face bigger fines or criminal liability.

To establish such a pattern, ICE would have to launch a larger audit, which Williams says takes a tremendous amount of resources given the size of a company like the Post. So the prosecutorial discretion that could allow Vargas to stay in the U.S. may end up benefiting his former employers, too.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery