In many ways, it’s a classic Horatio Alger tale. A young boy of 12 leaves the Philippines in the company of his uncle to join his grandparents in the United States. The boy, enamored with his new life and new country, quickly assimilates. He works hard, receives a stellar education courtesy of California public schools, and eventually becomes an award-winning journalist, published by some of the nation’s most renowned news sources. He is the American Dream, proof that with a lot of pluck and a little bit of luck, anyone can succeed. A feel-good story shot with bitter irony because the protagonist’s presence in the United States is itself a crime. The chaperoning uncle was not a relative but a coyote, or smuggler, paid to bring the child into the United States with forged documents. A doctored social security card was the basis for employment, a foundation later expanded to include the outright lie of checking “U.S. Citizen” on forms and applications.
Jose Antonio Vargas is many things: a Pulitzer Prize winner, a filmmaker, an undocumented alien resident, and the most prominent face of a growing movement for immigration reform, but above all else, Mr. Vargas is a storyteller. His own story, initially featured in a 2011 edition of the New York Times Magazine under the legend “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” chronicles the pain of an adolescent leaving his mother, the shock and dismay of a teenager learning he doesn’t legally belong, the desperation of a young man asserting his worth as a contributing member of society, and finally the weariness of a man exhausted from a lifetime of hiding in the shadows.
Published amid the controversy surrounding Congress’ reintroduction of the DREAM Act, the effect was staggering. Long time advocates of immigrant immunity now had a spokesperson backed with enough media clout to ensure he was heard. Proponents of tighter border control and speedy deportation of so-called illegals were suddenly confronted with a real life case who completely subverted their well-worn narrative of fence hopping, job stealing, wage lowering, public resource draining blights on America’s social and economic wellbeing. Furthermore, by stepping into the spotlight, Mr. Vargas not only humanized the debate, he inspired other undocumented residents as well as the families of deportees to come forward with their own accounts of trying to live a life permeated by fear, shame, distress, and loss.
Since coming out as one of America’s estimated 11 million undocumented residents, Mr. Vargas has become a warrior for reform. That same year, he founded Define American, a nonprofit project designed to “use the power of story to transcend politics and shift conversation around immigration, identity, and citizenship in America.” From this journey came Documented: a Film by an Undocumented American, an autobiographical movie he wrote, directed, and produced.
The central story is that of Mr. Vargas himself, but from there extends to his surviving grandparent, the mother he has been separated from for 20 years, the friends who committed crimes of compassion to help him stay and work in the United States. It includes interviews with lawmakers, fellow undocumented residents, strangers on the street, pro-immigration factions along with anti-immigration sects plus at least one person who is torn between both.
In one memorable scene, Mr. Vargas turns his camera from a gentleman discussing the civil rights implications of Alabama’s immigration legislation to a nearby heckler, who exclaims that everyone in the country illegally should be forced to leave. After introducing himself as a journalist and member of the aforementioned party, Mr. Vargas manages to get to the crux of his detractors sentiment: a construction worker born and raised in Alabama, he feels like he is losing work to undocumented workers that accept substantially lower pay off the books. It’s not jingoistic hate that fueled his outburst but a deep seated fear of losing the ability to support himself. Unburdened, the man’s demeanor and viewpoint visibly soften.
Taken collectively, Documented offers a masterful essay of everything that makes immigration one of the most compelling and complicated subjects facing our nation.
Documented screens as part of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival at Northwest Film Forum Screen 2 (small theater) on Saturday, February 14 at 3:00 p.m. and at Northwest Film Forum Screen 2 (large theater) on Sunday, February 15 at 6:00 p.m. Documented is preceded by the short film US. Q&A with US Director Seth Ronquillo.