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Pulitzer Winner's Personal Film About Being Undocumented

Jun 14, 2013
Originally published on June 17, 2013 1:08 pm



We're switching gears now to another story that's emotional for many people, especially now as Congress continues to try to work through an overhaul of the country's immigration laws. Jose Antonio Vargas is living that debate. He was 12 when his mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the U.S. At 16, he discovered he did not have the legal right to be here, especially not to work here. And he kept that a secret for many years, through college, and even through his career as a journalist at The Washington Post where he'd go on to win one of the industries most prestigious awards, the Pulitzer Prize. But by 2011, he decided he could not keep the secret any longer. In a riveting essay in The New York Times magazine, he decided to out himself as undocumented. Now he's gone on to co-direct a documentary about his experiences. The film is called "Documented," and it premieres next week at the AFI Docs Film Festival in Washington, D.C. And he's with us now to tell us more about it. Jose Antonio Vargas, thanks so much for joining us once again.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: What do you want to say with this film that you haven't said elsewhere?

VARGAS: That's a really good question. You know, as you noted, we are having this historic, very political debate on immigration. The Senate floor is debating it now, and I wanted to land, in a way, kind of an emotional wake-up call about what this issue really is about. I've spent about, more than - a little more than two years filming. And this actually is not - the film that is going to premiere at AFI Docs next Friday is not really the film that I had intended to make at first, but it ended up the way that it had to be, I suppose. And to show people that, you know, this is not about Republican or Democrat, immigration is not just about border security and the U.S.-Mexico border. I wanted to show a much more, you know, personal and much more family-oriented reality. You know, I haven't seen my mother for 20 years this coming August. She's been denied a visa to come here to the United States, and I can't leave because if I leave, there's no guarantee I'll be allowed back. So we actually - I sent a film crew to the Philippines to film her. You know, how do I direct a film if I can't even go to the Philippines to, you know, film my own mother? So that's part of the film, as well.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from a different part of the film.


MARTIN: This is from a rally that you attended for Mitt Romney back in 2011 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and you're talking with a couple of Romney supporters. Let's listen to that.


VARGAS: I'm Jose. It's nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you have a brother, Jose?

VARGAS: No, I do not.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you in line? Do you...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Have your name...

VARGAS: No. Sir, but sir, there's no line. I was brought here when I was 12.


VARGAS: I didn't know I didn't have papers until I was 16. My grandparents were American citizens and didn't tell me. So I've been here.


VARGAS: I've been paying taxes since I was 18. I just want to be able, as you said, to get legal to get in the back of a line somewhere.

MARTIN: Now these people were actually, I think, pretty nice, even though...

VARGAS: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...You were actually...

VARGAS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...You were actually, eventually, the police were called and you were thrown out...


MARTIN: ...But nicely. But I did want to ask about the emotional side of it. I mean, does it - how is it for you to have to continue to explain yourself time and time again?

VARGAS: You know, I've been traveling now. I've done about 130 events in 30 states in the past two years, and what has been abundantly clear to me, as a journalist, you know, as a filmmaker, and also as an undocumented person in this country is, you know, immigration is by far the most controversial, yet least understood issue in America. People just simply do not understand how the process works, which is why I get asked questions like, so what do you mean you're not Mexican? Or, you know, why can't you just make yourself legal? Why don't you get in the back of the line? You know, why did you have to get a driver's license when you know that it's not legal? So these kind of questions - I mean, for me, I mean, look, at the end of the day, people are busy living their lives to have to care about my life, right, or, you know, the people next to them who don't have papers. But this kind of misinformation has feed - has fed this, you know, misperceptions about what this issue is about. It is exhausting to have to tell people all the time that, you know, I'm actually from the Philippines, I'm not from Mexico, you know. I got to tell you, by the way, traveling around the country, hearing people use "illegal" and "Mexican" interchangeably. Just, you know, "these illegal Mexicans," as if all undocumented people are from Mexico, right.

MARTIN: Or is it as if all Mexicans are undocumented.

VARGAS: Exactly. And, but again, it's like, it was astounding to me because, I mean, as you noted, I mean, these were kind people, you know. Like, I ended up speaking to a couple, an elderly couple, in Cedar Rapids who were like, talk to Grassley, you know, talk to Senator Grassley. You know, he helped us with our daughter-in-law who came here from Britain. I'm like, you know, he can't do anything for me. I don't fit the profile of somebody that he can help, which is why I think that the American people, once they hear the stories, once you look them in the eye and tell them what the situation is, they want to help. But, unfortunately, our politicians and our politics are getting in the way of that kind of a conversation.

MARTIN: But there are still a lot of people who feel it's just wrong. They feel that this is a nation of laws. I know you've heard...


MARTIN: ...This a million times - this is a nation of laws...

VARGAS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...And if you break the law, if you don't follow the law, then you really don't deserve any further consideration. For people who have that point of view, I mean, as painful as it is to hear it, what do you say?

VARGAS: Oh, no, no. Oh, no. I want to hear that. I mean, honestly, I mean, which is why when people tell me that, you know, I tell them, would you have preferred that I would have, you know - nothing was - no one was threatening to out me about being undocumented. I could've just kept working, you know, and living what I was, you know, doing. But I couldn't lie anymore, you know. I mean, I'm not here to say that I didn't break any laws. I did. But the question is so now what? Now what do we do? Right? Do we just kick the 11 million people out? Do we provide a process in which they can actually, you know, come forward and say, I'm here, I want to keep contributing, I want to keep paying, you know, Social Security and paying taxes because we do, you know, we do do that. But I feel like we're not having this kind of honest conversation, and I don't even think we're on the same page.

MARTIN: Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He founded a nonprofit called Define American to facilitate conversations about immigration. He's the co-director of "Documented," which premieres next Friday at the AFI Docs Film Festival - used to be called Silver Docs - in Washington, D.C. Jose Antonio Vargas, thanks for speaking with us.

VARGAS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.