Undocumented Filipino tells of hard life in US


WASHINGTON, DC—Two years ago this weekend, Philippine-born journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out publicly in The New York Times as an undocumented American, a term he prefers to the loaded phrase “illegal immigrant.”

He was 12 years old in 1993 when his young mother put him on a flight in Manila to be raised by his grandparents in California, in the hope he could live the American dream to the fullest.

What happened since that Times essay is the subject of “Documented,” written, produced and directed by Vargas, 32, which got its world premiere on Friday at the American Film Institute’s AFI Docs festival.

“I’m still undocumented,” said Vargas, who shared a Pulitzer prize for breaking news when he was a reporter at Washington Post, where only one trusted editor knew of his 24/7 dread of getting caught and deported.

“I’m a reporter at heart. I go by facts. But at the same time, I also live this,” he told Agence France-Presse in a telephone interview on Friday.

“It’s been very interesting going around the country, talking to people who think they know what this [debate] is about but really don’t. Our lives are up against tremendous amounts of misinformation and a lot of ignorance,” Vargas said.

The timing of “Documented” couldn’t be better for the outgoing and outspoken Vargas, a regular guest on TV news and talk shows who also runs a website,, which tackles immigration issues.

Congress is grappling with root-and-branch legislation that would beef up security along the vast US-Mexican border in return for the regularization of the status of what American bureaucrats often call “illegal aliens.”



At the same time, United States President Barack Obama’s administration has been deporting illegal immigrants at a furious pace: nearly 1.59 million during his first four years in office alone, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Many of the 11 million undocumented people in the US—including 1.3 million from Asia, 800,000 from South America and 300,000 from Europe—have fingers crossed for the best-case outcome: full US citizenship.

More than two years in the making, “Documented” was originally supposed to focus on the youthful citizenship activists known as DREAMers, but it grew to cover Vargas’ own adventures, taking his story to ordinary Americans.

In a Michael Moore moment at a Mitt Romney presidential campaign event in Iowa, Vargas turns up with a sign declaring his undocumented status to the Republican hopeful’s hard-core conservative fans.

One white middle-aged couple boasts how their daughter-in-law had legally immigrated from Britain—adding, with no sign of irony, how a helpful US senator greased the notoriously long and complicated process.

Vargas’ plight

But the emotional highlight comes when Vargas goes on Skype to reconnect with his mother, Emelie Salinas, who lives outside Manila. Together, over a dodgy Internet connection, they discuss his plight and how it came to be.

For now, Vargas cannot go to the Philippines to visit her because he has no US passport—and thus no guarantee he will be allowed back into the country where he has built his life and made his name.

She, in turn, cannot travel to the United States to see him because getting a tourist visa is next to impossible for Filipinos and others from developing countries. She has already tried and been denied.

“Can you imagine?” Vargas told AFP. “I have seen more of my mother in three months editing this film than I have in 20 years.”

Complex issue

In the long run, Vargas—who got a standing ovation at Friday’s premiere from friends, relatives and former Post colleagues—hopes “Documented” can help reshape a debate that dwells obsessively on border security.

“I would argue that immigration is the most controversial yet least understood issue in America,” he said.

“The question I [often] get asked is, ‘Why don’t you just make yourself legal?’ There isn’t a process for somebody like me to get legal. People don’t understand the process and the issue is so complex,” he said.

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Disclaimer: The comments uploaded on this site do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of management and owner of We reserve the right to exclude comments that we deem to be inconsistent with our editorial standards.

  • Guest

    Mahirap mamuhay d sarileng bayan.

  • Noel

    Vargas could have tried many other options to stay legal but he chose not to.

    • md’c™

      that maybe true. but you have to realize that during that time, he never thought he was illegal. there was reagan’s amnesties but he did not apply for it, correct.

  • indiosbravos2002

    Kaya nga walang respeto ibang bansa sa Filipino kasi sa mga tarantadong tulad nito. Gahaman at makasarili. Walang ibang inisip kung hindi sarili nilang kapakanan. Hindi ba naisip ng nanay nya na kung ilang Filipinong may pamilya sa US na hindi nabigyan ng Visa dahil sa mga taong nagTNT. Tapos humihingi sila ng malasakit sa atin. Amp. Kagaguhan yan.

    • Guest

      sorry for you. your mind is little and youre so ignorant.

      • indiosbravos2002

        Am I sorry for you for being a coward. Deleting your comment so as not to read your counter comments that might bash you.

  • WAJ

    I don’t like Amnesty Bill that the US Senators (Gang of 8) are imposing in the U.S. Senate. I am against it. I feel that those people who illegally staying in the US should be deported. Just imagine, millions of undocumented people of all walks of life would have easily acquired Permanent Residency or US Citizenship, and the President was able to say that this will boost the U.S. economy. How is it going to happen while the main problem in the country is unemployment. Amnesty Bill will have a tremendous impact to the economy; (1) Unemployment rate will go up (2) millions of people will be applying for benefits, and so on.

    • $14141131

      Homeless people, some right across the road from the northern side of the WH, are becoming a way of life and they are fast increasing. Thanks to the foodstamp. That is why unemployment is increasing because many people are just to lazy and arrogant to accept jobs like washing dishes, installing roofs, porterman, farm workers, etc. And yet these people has no exact education, a college course or vocational course, to tot. All they think as a reason is the color of their skin and fantastic imagination.

    • slim6744

      Yes…I don’t either. Amnesty is like SURRENDER. What about those people who are living abroad….and WAITING for their “green Cards?” Has AMERICA already SURRENDERED to those who have BROKEN immigration Laws?

      Being ALREADY in the States is a GREAT LEAP FORWARD. Once you are already here….You can work, act “like an American”…..and ..maybe…..EVEN IMPROVE your English. I am formerly from Manila. I joined the U.S. Navy on May 29, 1959…… the age of 24. I discharged on May 28, 1965…..AS AN AMERICAN CITIZEN. I NEVER had caused for regret….ever since.

      I NEVER LOOKED BACK… NOSTALGIA for Manila. EVER! Now…..I OWN my own LANDSCAPING CONTRACT business, earn between $25.00 and $40.00 AN HOUR…..and wear DIAMOND RINGS, with a little money in the Bank…..Ahhhhhh. life was never sweeter!

      I also NOTICED that….over eleven million Filipinos work OVERSEAS….KNOWN AS OFWs So…I was right after all!! Manila SUCKS…….and may be only good for a visit. There is something wrong with a country…..when you can’t make a decent living…..UNLESS……you work overseas.

      I really LIKE it here in the States. This is STILL…..the Land of Milk and Money….HONEY! NO WONDER….these ILLEGALS…..want to remain here!

      • md’c™

        Stay and you did. I was there and now home free here, but no regrets. In due time, I am looking into renouncing my us citizenship and live well here. Free of the IRS and them all.

        Yes, money was easy when I was there considering my background and what I did for a living and what my Fidelity and Janus funds did for me so well. Of course what I did was not like running around scraping the sidewall of a ship making a few bucks, but I had a first class education and I dictated my own destiny. In other words, employers looked for me and head hunters wanted me in a heartbeat. Fresh from College, I started at around $90/hr and left at $250/hr. But my work was hard and when deadline was due, it took my life away from me. Even now, they track me down here and I said no more and not interested.

        I am done and done and my life is good (although the smug, tricycles and jeepneys are stoppers sometimes). So, all I am saying is, its not what you think that counts but everyone is different. America is a good home if you are fresh from college and in the work force and enjoying your young years. Once you’re in your senior years like you, you are just an oldie in the united states, and life as an old person in the united states is not pretty. Retirement is so much fun in the Philippines and life is vigorous and so much fun even for my parents when they were alive. They never liked the idea of retiring in san francisco bay and continued their practice in the Philippines during their golden years.

        I am still in my young years and retired in my own terms, and loving it. So, the Philippines my forefathers who fought for it, its fun and loving and its my home.

      • slim6744

        How funny…..I just have to agree with you.I haven’t really told you about “my other” life. I married a Filipina School Teacher, with two Degrees in Accounting, and Book keeping. She is a wonderful Filipina lady, (I’m originally from Manila) and born there.

        She convinced me to RETIRE for good in Cebu……with her. I married her on December 16, 2010, and we have communicated by email ever since. I lived in CEbu…for four months. The life in Cebu is VERY ROMANTIC.

        My wife is 57….and I ‘m 78. Yes….life in the U.S. can be VERY DIFFICULT….especially in your senior years. However, I STILL work because I OWN my Landscaping Business. Employers DO NOT HIRE….”old foggies” like me. Not at this age anyway.

        When I retire next year and join her……I will only think of the POSITIVE….and leave the NEGATIVES…..BEHIND.

        Thanks a lot for your response. I appreciate it.

      • md’c™

        Just follow her. Cebu and the hinterland is beautiful. The people are very warm and so friendly, unlike in the states. You will enjoy every bit of it once you start a new life. She knows and you should. Close shop, life is more important than your shop. Enjoy it while you still can breathe the air. Life’s short, so use it well.

        I am happy and life’s good to me from San Francisco to the Hills of San Pedro, Laguna 25mi south of the Metro center.

        Saludo !

    • md’c™

      Amnesty is just a word, and republicans made it sound terrible. Its either leave them in the shadow or do something to sort of legalize them. You can call it amnesty, I call it humanitarian. Its a win-win for everyone.

      The huge unemployment during the crash was not caused by illegals. They were caused by the rich greedy financials and real estate bankers. How many crashes we had, which created unemployment and who caused them? Not the illegals for sure.

      You are basing everything without facts.
      Fact – Unemployment will never go up, they are already employed getting paid under the table.
      Fact – They wont take your jobs. Majority of the illegals are labor from north and south americas. They work mostly in restaurants, labor, and small blue collars.
      Fact – Yes, they may apply for benefits. Benefits they already earned by paying forward. SS they do not owned already but they paid for it nevertheless, but its their benefits in the shadow.
      Fact – Majority of illegal immigrants work very hard everyday, they contribute a lot to the economy but not recorded in the legal sense, they mostly pay taxes without you knowing it.
      Fact – Majority of bums and criminals are either us citizens or residents. A little few of them are illegals but they were mostly repeat criminals and can be easily weeded out if the justice system and police wants to do it.
      Fact – When they get legalized, they will legalize their social security numbers and will legalize their contributions. You will then find out who those multi billions of irs money general account belongs to, were illegal aliens.

      Getting it out in the open, makes it easier for the country and for everybody. However, we need to stop the continued flow of illegals from the borders where the drug infusion is unstoppable. There where the problems are, not the hard working undocumented people.

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  • $14141131

    Hao-zhao just doesn’t know what he is talking out of ignorance maybe (I hope not.) Daly City, California has a Pilipino mayor. Another town in California has also a Pilipino mayor. You go to San Francisco and meet with top computer programmers and you will be introduced to a Pilipino. Go to San Diego and ask who owns some of the high-end cars parked in expensive restaurants (not Chinese restaurants) and they’ll say Asians including Pilipinos. And don’t ask who most head the nursing staff in US hospitals, certainly most are Pilipinos. And go to Chinatown, ask who are scrubbing their bathrooms and kitchens – undocumented Chinese who can’t even speak a single English sentence.

  • $14141131

    Why the he** he was able to work in the US? Now he is opening his mouth just to legalize what was really illegal. Can’t there’ll be no intention of entering another country legally? If he was lucky to get what he had accomplish as an undocumented alien, then let it not be made as a justification to make correct immigration laws obsolete or scuttled. Let’s teach people to be rightful and law abiding. Forget the politicians who make a living out of popularity and not of service, making fantastic rhetorics that’s out of this world.

  • mindo601

    Well at least they don’t eat human fetus unlike you greed Chinese people as I’ve seen on your stupid name.

  • Ryan Yturriaga

    Hey Zhao Yu, I would love to pump bullets in your head, but I want to make sure you don’t die easy, I hope to make you suffer for a long time.

  • Guest

    chinx stinx and stinx you are. pizz off you uneducated piece of sh¡t. You fµcking d¡ckless fµck.

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