Jose Antonio Vargas was living the American dream. A young Filipino-American, Vargas had won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism and worked for some of the largest news outlets in country. There was just one problem. Vargas is an undocumented immigrant.
The struggle of Vargas and others like him — children brought into the country illegally by their parents, “Dreamers” — is the subject of a new documentary, “Documented,” being screened at O Cinema in Miami Shores this weekend.
Three years ago, Vargas, who is also openly gay, outed himself about his immigration status in a “New York Times” op-ed. A year later, he appeared on the cover of “TIME” magazine worldwide with fellow undocumented immigrants as part of a follow-up story he wrote.
Since then, he has testified at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform and vocally challenged the media's coverage of undocumented immigrants and their desires for a legal opportunity to stay in the country.
“Documented” chronicles his journey to America from the Philippines as a child; his decision to become an immigration reform activist; and a tear-filled Skype call with the mother he hasn't seen in person in over 20 years.
“My life really started three years ago,” explained Vargas by telephone. “For most Americans, immigration is not an immediate issue so long as you have your tomatoes and strawberries and somebody is mowing your yard and bringing you drinks.”
When he undertook the film, Vargas never expected the notoriety the project would generate as he traveled the country, questioning both young Dreamers and immigration reform foes from coast to coast.
“I had to get used to being a public person, I’m a writer, not a spokesman,” he said. “We all have to lead ourselves, but I don’t want to be on a pedestal. That’s what we do in America, we call them brave and courageous and heroic and then three weeks later, we beat them down. I just want what you have, freedom.”
Vargas argues immigration reform is a moral issue, especially for the LGBT community. While it was easier for him to come out as a young man in California, the gay community tends to focus on the debate in terms of bi-national couples. Often forgotten are the race and class issues that accompany any debate about immigration.
A century ago, Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans and Jews were among the predominate groups seeking to immigrate to America. The same racial slurs were hurled at them as the largely Latino immigrants who are the faces of the modern debate. Vargas is quick to point out that even today there are also scores of undocumented immigrants from Asia and Europe.
In one scene, at a political rally in Iowa, after Vargas explained that he was Filipino and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, foes changed their tunes quickly, “Well, we want the best and brightest,” they say, seemingly forgetting their previous prejudices.
“How do we take this out of the U.S./Mexico, Democrat/Republican box?” asked Vargas. “The debate is completely devoid of any historical context or nuance. We’re paying taxes. It’s about our homes and families and the courage to fight for the same future.”
Vargas doesn’t regret his uncomfortable decision to go public, an “act of civil disobedience” he made against the advice of his lawyers, and so far, immigration officials have been hesitant to initiate any legal action against him. The uncertainty has led him to avoid any romantic relationships, at least for now.
Most importantly, he’s living his life openly: “That’s what happens when you’re in the closet — any closet — the lies take over.” And, he dreams of the day when the issue is finally resolved.
“As a storyteller, that’s what I do. I provoke and answer questions. I traffic in empathy. For me, this film is a question of empathy. I ask you this, has humanity ever built a wall that can withstand human will? Our qualities are tied together. I’m a gay, undocumented Filipino-American. All of that is me.”
Jose Antonio Vargas will lead discussions following screenings of “Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American” at O Cinema, 9806 NE 2nd Ave. in Miami Shores, on Friday, June 6 at 7 p.m., and Saturday June 7, and Sunday, June 8, at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. For tickets, go to O-Cinema.org.