Before Jose Antonio Vargas came out publicly as an undocumented immigrant in 2011, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist was already filming the moments leading up to his big reveal. During an early scene of Documented: A Film by an Undocumented Immigrant, Vargas speaks about the DREAM Act with journalism students at Mountain View High School in California, where he once co-edited the school paper. “I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t told a lot of people,” Vargas says. He announces his intention to come out of the shadows, through his now-famous New York Times Magazine essay and to launch “a whole campaign about what it means to be an American.”
Since then, Vargas has toured the country with his advocacy group Define American to change the national conversation about immigration. Documented follows Vargas, from his move to the United States in 1993 through his career as a successful journalist to his current role as perhaps the most high-profile undocumented immigrant in America. Vargas’s relationship with his mother, who he hasn’t seen in more than twenty years, also figures prominently in the film.
We spoke with Mr. Vargas by phone last Thursday about Documented, his advocacy and the future of the immigrant rights movement. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
I read on Facebook that you’re showing Documented at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, tonight.
The campaign director of Define American is actually a minister and he lives in Louisville. So, tonight, for the first time, we’re looking at immigration through a Christian lens.
I can’t believe it. We’re approaching the third year of Define American. The day The New York Times posted my essay on the website is when our organization was born. From the very beginning, the goal was creating a cultural space to have a conversation beyond the usual immigration frameworks: political, partisan, US-Mexico border, “illegal.” A year after I came out, we had the Time magazine cover. That was the first time you had a major publication put undocumented people on the cover saying, “We are Americans, just not legally.” Our organization occupies a unique space within the immigrant movement. To me, it’s bigger than immigration. It’s about citizenship. That’s why we called the organization Define American. We didn’t call it DefineImmigrant.
What did you learn while making this film?
When I outed myself a few years ago, after I didn’t hear from the government, there was a part of me that thought, “Somebody from ICE or INS is going to get in touch with me.” Then nothing was said. Immediately I started traveling and I started filming and filming and filming. I’ve done over 200 events in forty-two states in almost three years. I would say two things. One: I underestimated the gap between what Americans know about immigration and what the reality is about immigration. I had assumed that there was a gap. I would not have anticipated that it would have been this big. People have no idea. The fact that people ask me, “Why don’t you just make yourself legal?” or “Why don’t you wait in the back of the line?” That proves to me that fundamentally, the American people do not have an understanding of how immigration works in this country.
The second thing that I found the most tragic is—when people find out I am not Mexican, or that I’m Filipino—once they find out that I’m not what they think I’m supposed to be, they start talking badly to me about Mexicans. I did not anticipate the level of how many people use the word illegal and Mexican interchangeably. Just assuming that somebody who is Latino or somebody who is brown is Mexican and then making the assumption that he appeared illegal. I mean, that is a tragedy. That is a tragedy with such political, cultural and personal implications that I cannot even begin to describe.