Of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, none is as well known or influential as Jose Antonio Vargas – a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who brings his life story to Sacramento on Tuesday.
Vargas was part of a team of reporters who won the Pulitzer for the Washington Post’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2008, even as he concealed his illegal status and agonized over the small and big lies he told while pursuing his dreams.
He’s wielded enough clout to get Mark Zuckerberg, the media-shy CEO of Facebook, to agree to a lengthy interview for a New Yorker profile that Vargas wrote.
Yet Vargas, who lives in New York, can’t get a driver’s license.
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Vargas, 32, is an accomplished insider, making good on the massive potential that an army of mentors and surrogate parents saw in him as a precocious kid growing up in the Silicon Valley. He is a familiar face on CNN and MSNBC, but is an “alien” in the eyes of the law.
He was spirited to America from the Philippines at the age of 12 by his grandparents. Vargas didn’t know he was undocumented until he was 16, when he was turned away from a DMV office while seeking his first driver’s license. A clerk told him his green card – the one his grandfather provided him – was fraudulent.
“I realized the flag I had always pledged allegiance to didn’t belong to me,” he said.
So began a personal journey that is emblematic of the “illegal immigration” issue in all its contradictions.
To this day, Vargas gets lectured by native-born Americans who insist that he must go somewhere and “stand in line” with other immigrants seeking to come to America “legally.”
When Vargas responds with truth – that there is no such line for him to stand in – he is met with blank stares.
This repeated scene from his life is captured on film in all its jarring discomfort in the movie “Documented” – a moving account of Vargas’ life that will be screened for an invitation-only audience at the Guild Theater in Oak Park on Tuesday.
Just under 90 minutes, the film is a project of Define American, the nonprofit media and culture campaign that Vargas founded with the hope of shifting the national conversation on immigration in America.
That is much easier said than done.
Immigration is an issue where lies, half-truths and distortions have been repeated for so long, they’ve become misguided gospel in the hearts of too many.
Vargas’ documentary, which will be entered in film festivals this fall and winter and hopefully will find commercial release by early next year, is ingenious in the way it conveys its message.
It combats the calcified falsehoods of our immigration debate with humanity.
Vargas doesn’t lecture or condemn anyone in his film. He does something much more powerful. He travels around the country telling his story while calmly facing the very people who want him and others like him to be deported.
When an elderly man says, “Hey, Jose. Do you know Hose-B?” Vargas doesn’t take the bait, or grow the least bit angry when the same man tells him to return to Mexico.
“I’m from the Philippines,” Vargas says.
At this point in the film, something quite remarkable happens.
The ignorance and hostility that Vargas faces begin to melt away as he deflects each of the misguided immigration slogans hurled his way.
The truth is that family reunification is a major driving force behind immigration patterns, but to get a green card via the family route you must be the spouse, unmarried child or parent of a U.S. citizen.
Vargas is none of the above. There is no line for him to stand in. All he can do is tell his story.
When Vargas is shown in Alabama, filming people about the draconian immigration laws enacted there, he is verbally accosted by a drunken man with a deep drawl who points his finger at Vargas and asks him if he has papers.
Vargas pauses and asks, “What if I told you I didn’t?” The bar patron is stunned as Vargas tells him he’s been paying taxes since he was 18 – that he is a college graduate and a Pulitzer winner.
Suddenly, Vargas is no longer an abstraction to the man. Even in his drunken state, he stops spouting political rhetoric as he hears Vargas’ story. He stops telling Vargas to go back where he came from. He gives Vargas a playful fist bump.
The message is that when undocumented immigrants stop being abstractions, people stop demonizing them.
In Vargas’ life, there have been countless people who have loved him and helped him, despite his status. He is considered a family member by an impressive array of teachers, counselors, newspaper editors and more.
What is the answer for Vargas and others? Immigration reform. It will create the line for Vargas and others to stand in and petition for legal residency. It will address America’s labor needs and stop punishing people like Vargas, who had no say in their arrival in the United States without documentation in the first place.
Vargas has paid a heavy price for his status, including a painful estrangement from his mother for 20 years. As a teenager he was furious at his grandparents for their decision to bring him here the way they did. It wasn’t until later that he realized they had no choice. They wanted to rescue him from poverty in the Philippines but did not have standing as grandparents to petition for him legally. His mother has been denied a visa for more than a decade, so the grownups in Vargas’ life made the decision to rescue him while his mother stayed behind.
His mother is still waiting in line all these years later, as some Americans want, while a family is kept apart.
Vargas is in Sacramento this week in part because of the state capital’s significance in the immigration debate. Just last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law that eventually will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.
But one day soon, Vargas hopes to screen his film in Alabama and other states that have the toughest immigration laws in America. He’s not afraid of being deported, mocked or told to go home.
He’s trying to change the conversation – one mind at a time.