Courtesy / Apo Anak Productions
Saturday, June 14, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Jose Antonio Vargas waited 14 years to come out as an “undocumented American,” but when he finally took the leap, it was a cannonball.
In 2011, Vargas was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Washington Post when he risked everything and revealed he immigrated to the United States illegally, detailing every aspect of his life — including the fake documents he used to get work — in a feature published in New York Times Magazine.
So Vargas gave up his fake ID in favor of a real Filipino passport, and without a visa, he started flying around the country to share his story and raise awareness of the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. without documentation. Shocked by the lack of government response, Vargas went so far as to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ask what the agency planned to do about him. “No comment,” the response came back.
“I think that is a metaphor for how the American public at large view this issue,” he said in a phone interview this week. “A recent poll shows 60 percent of Americans want a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but where is the sense of moral urgency? Where is the political urgency? As long as someone is harvesting the crops, as long as someone is mowing the lawn, as long they are paid cheaply for their labor, everything seems to be OK. But it’s not OK.”
Three years after the magazine article, Vargas is still here without legal status. These days, he is devoted to continuing the campaign he began in 2011 to spark a national conversation about immigration in the United States, most recently by touring the country to promote a documentary about his life titled “Documented: a film by an undocumented American.”
The film debuted in May in select cities and will come to Las Vegas for a one-time screening Monday before airing nationally on CNN later this month. Part personal and part political, the documentary chronicles Vargas’ journey from the Philippines to the U.S. at age 12, when he left his mother to join his grandparents in California. He did not find out he was undocumented until he turned 16 and wanted to get his driver’s license.
“I had no idea what would happen after I came out,” he said. “I prepared myself for everything, except for what happened: silence. I was not prepared for the government to not do anything.”
Vargas’ Define American media and culture campaign aims to bring immigration to the forefront of public discussion and sway media organizations to use “undocumented immigrant” over “illegal immigrant” or simply “illegal.” In his film he takes it a step further, using “undocumented American” in the subtitle, hinting at the question that frames the film: How do you define American?
Still searching for a national response to that question, Vargas wants to “preach beyond the choir” by reaching out to communities where immigration reform proposals are not popular. He has attended more than 200 events in 45 different states trying to do that.
Organizers at the Progressive Leadership of Alliance of Nevada, which is coordinating the “Documented” screening in Las Vegas, hope the film leads to conversation about immigration right here in the Silver State.
“We wanted to screen this film because it’s important for people to be exposed to real immigration stories to humanize the struggle people are going through as we try to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” PLAN communications director Laura Martin said. “All of our elected officials in Nevada agree the system is broken and hurting families, but unfortunately they are unable to come up with any solutions.”
In the film, Vargas also illustrates some of the challenges immigrants like him face on a day-to-day basis. While at promotional events, numerous people ask Vargas why he doesn’t “just get legal.” In response, Vargas explains that there is no simple answer available to him, no line for citizenship he can easily step into. He is too old for some citizenship paths and without the family ties needed for sponsorship. His mother has been waiting for more than a decade for a visa to come to the United States.
Even as the frustration mounts for Vargas, and others like him without legal status, he will continue jumping into any conversation people let him.
“I want to use whatever access I have, whatever skill I have, to have an impact, to insist on a different conversation,” Vargas said.