Film reveals life in US for undocumented immigrants

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Jose Antonio Vargas. AP

WASHINGTON—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 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 the 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 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.”

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, 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 persons in the United States — 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’s own adventures taking his story to average 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 hardcore 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.”

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  • Kronos2

    “Immigration issue is the most controversial and least understood issue?” Mr. Vargas—there is nothing controversial. The sheer big number of illegals I the US (you included) don’t make it controversial. Citizenship laws in US are clear cut and if you are not born there or got naturalized, you’re an illegal if you overstayed your tourist status. Don’t pussyfoot around the issue and your Pulitzer credentials won’t make a dent to improve your status. Best would be return to Philippines and make time to be with your mother. The US is not worth fighting for over family values—-which most of them don’t have to start with.

    • RJR

      Amen to that!

  • blue_lights

    Mr. Vargas, the reason it is nearly impossible to get a tourist visa in the US these days, is because of all the overstaying / TNT / illegal immigrants like yourself! Your I-94 clearly stated how long you were allowed to stay in the US and you and/or your accomplice relatives knowingly chose to, and continue ti violate the laws of your host country.

    You should be ashamed bringing your squatter mentality out there, and then proudly parading in the media outlets that you came from the Philippines. All you’re doing is making consuls view our visa applicants with a little bit more distrust, and making some bucks for yourself along the way. I have no respect for you.

    • RJR

      Ditto! :)

    • titod

      Please know the facts before you comment. He came in as a look-a-like. He was smuggled in.

      • blue_lights

        I was not aware of that. Granting that he never had an I-94, that would just make him and his family more crooked from the very start.

  • Manuel_II

    They are Traitors, AMERICA can keep them.

  • Saloi-CDR

    …you are trying to make the wrongdoing done by your mother and grandpa, a little less… what?…”unfortunate event”? What you and your family did was illegal. Period. Deal with that.

  • DonQuixoteDeRizal

    If order to make wrong right, I suggest that Mr. Vargas go back to the Philippines. This is the time to take care of her mother. Life is short.

    Forget about the american dream, you will never get it. The Philippines awaits you with your knowledge. Rappler, any job for this man? He’s a Pulitzer-awardee for starter.

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