Documented’s Vargas: The Culture Has Not Yet Shifted on Immigration


Jose Antonio Vargas has just bared his soul to an audience in Queens and now he is basking in the afterglow. A crowd of dozens lingers in the lobby of the Museum of the Moving Image, swarming around him well after the closing credits of his film, Documented. The Filipino-American filmmaker smiles and laughs, shakes hands, poses for pictures, and tells his new friends to keep in touch on Facebook.

Read our film review of Documented

It’s no surprise that Documented — a deeply personal documentary about Vargas’s life as an undocumented immigrant — elicits such a warm response. He created the film with the express purpose of swaying viewers, particularly those not already sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented, to soften their views on immigration. The film’s true power will be tested later this summer when it is broadcast on national television, but early on, at least, it seems to be working.

Viewers end up feeling as though they have known Vargas for years. Moving from his ramshackle childhood home in the Philippines to the halls of Congress, where Vargas delivers a Hollywood-caliber speech to the Senate Judiciary Committee about what it means to be an American, the film is an emotional journey that provokes both tears and laughter. Vargas is the hero, the Pulitzer-winning journalist who sheds his veil of objectivity to fight for civil rights, but mostly he comes across as human. He’s the 12-year-old kid who loves Fresh Prince and the thirtysomething adult who can’t bring himself to friend his estranged mother on Facebook. It seems like he keeps no secrets.

“That’s probably what I was most scared of going into all this,” Vargas says later, away from the crowd. “The word ‘humility’ comes to mind. How do I do this with as much humility as possible?”

In 2011, Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine cover story, telling the world how his grandparents, both naturalized U.S. citizens, paid to have him smuggled into the country as a child, leaving his single mother behind in the Philippines. The film focuses on the weeks leading up to the bombshell story, and the fallout in the years after. Vargas quit journalism and created the pro-immigrant Define American campaign.

Vargas has been touring the country virtually nonstop ever since, using his story to make the case that America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants deserve better from the government. Now, with the release of Documented, Vargas is poised to take his message to a truly national audience. The film premieres May 2 at the Village East Cinema, and is scheduled to air on CNN over the summer.

“The era of preaching to the choir is over,” Vargas says. “No more patting ourselves on the back. We will not win this thing if we do not talk — actually talk — with each other.”

During a roundtable discussion after the screening in Queens with filmmaker Paola Mendoza and Nisha Agarwal, the city’s commissioner of immigrant affairs, Vargas stressed his belief that movies and television have the power to sway public opinion like no other medium. He cited the Joy Luck Club as a favorite because of the way it humanizes Asian immigrants. Sexually diverse characters in popular movies and shows such as Frozen and Orange Is the New Black are widely credited with influencing mainstream views on LGBT issues.

“I would make the argument that the LGBT civil rights movement would not be where it is now if the culture had not shifted as far as it did,” Vargas says. “The fact that Jan Brewer can veto an anti-gay bill and keep S.B. 1070 [Arizona’s strict anti-illegal immigration law] tells you everything about how the culture has not yet shifted on immigration.”

With immigration reform stalled at the federal level, Vargas and other advocates are pushing state and local initiatives as stopgaps. In New York, the City Council is considering a bill that would establish the largest municipal ID system in the nation, giving undocumented immigrants who are unable to obtain driver licenses access to a variety of city services. Agarwal also points to a public defender service for defendants in federal immigration court, and programs to educate public school students about immigration laws and issues.

“We see our role in city government as being a leader and doing what the federal government should be doing when they’re lagging,” Agarwal says. “Those local and state efforts, they inevitably influence what the national government thinks it can and should do.”

Vargas calls it “an embarrassment of monstrous proportions” that the state legislature has been unable to pass the New York Dream Act, which would allow undocumented students who meet in-state tuition requirements to access financial aid and scholarships. But he still hopes that his film will make a difference.

“We have to change the culture before we can even focus on the political football that is happening when it comes to this issue,” Vargas says. “That’s why I think films are important; that’s why culture and art is important. We need more of these stories. This is only one story.”