For Jose Antonio Vargas, watching footage from DOCUMENTED: A FILM BY AN UNDOCUMENTED AMERICAN with the sound off was a revelation. This undocumented, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist had always prided himself on his toughness, the toughness that allowed him to navigate a high-profile career despite his immigration status, or lack thereof. What he saw was a man who was broken by the struggle. When we talked on May 8, 2014, it was one of the first things he discussed about his remarkable life and film.
DOCUMENTED, his second film, was designed to bring the debate about immigration reform down to a very personal level. And there is no doubt that seeing Vargas Skyping with his mother back in the Philippines is powerful stuff. He had not seen her since he was 12, when he was bundled from Manila to California to be raised by his grandparents and given a shot at a better life. They had, of course, written letters and spoken over the phone, but the expression on Vargas’ face when he sees her in real time on the computer screen speaks more that volumes of abstract debate.
It, like his film, makes an unimpeachable case for those who came to this country by no choice of their own, as children, grew up here as Americans and now want to stay as part of the Obama administration’s DREAM Act that would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants in Vargas’ position. Far from a screed or a diatribe, though, it unfolds in a straightforward way, which makes the heartbreaks all the more poignant. As are the confrontations with opponents who reveal their ignorance as they argue against Vargas’ right to stay in his adopted homeland.
It’s a reflection of Vargas himself as I learned during our conversation. Straightforward, erudite, and passionate about finding justice for a forgotten group who have as much to offer society as the native-born. He also offered insight into why he, despite misgivings, decided to make himself the subject of the film, and what his “aha” moment was that made him want to come out about his immigration status.
DOCUMENTED is his documentary about the immigration laws in this country, and the very personal stake he has in seeing them reformed. Vargas came to this country from the Philippines at the age of 12, leaving behind his single mother for life with his grandparents and a chance for a better life in America. It wasn’t until he was 16 that he discovered his undocumented status, and began a life of subterfuge in order to stay here. That all changed in 2011, when Vargas wrote an essay in the NY Times Magazine coming out, as it were, about his undocumented status. The efforts he once put into getting around the system have now been channeled into reforming that same system, and to that end he has not only made this film, but he also co-founded Define American, a group dedicated to talking about as well as spurring immigration reform. Vargas is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Huffington Post & Rolling Stone.