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, DefineAmerican.com, 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.
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.”
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.