January Issue: Journalist Turned Immigration Activist Jose Vargas Speaks From the Heart

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, immigration rights activist and self-declared undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas testifies on Capitol Hill on Feb. 13, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on comprehensive immigration reform.

American at Heart

At one time, Filipino American journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ work was his life. Then, after “coming out” as undocumented in 2011, his life became his work.


When Jose Antonio Vargas was 12, his mother sent him from his home in the Philippines to the United States to live with his grandparents, whom Jose grew up thinking led an affluent life overseas. In reality, his grandfather was a security guard and his grandmother worked in food services. After relocating to Mountain View, California, Vargas pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America every day at school, not realizing anything was amiss—other than the fact that his mother was curiously unable to follow him to the U.S. like she had planned.

Then, one day, a 16-year-old Vargas went to the DMV for the typical teenage rite of passage: to take his driver’s permit test. But when a woman there told him that his green card was fake and warned him not to come back there again, Vargas finally learned the truth about his passage to his adopted country.

Vargas’ grandfather, a naturalized citizen, told his grandson he had saved up money to purchase fake documents to bring Jose over. He had assumed Jose would grow up to work in the service industry, live a low-key life until he married someone with papers, and all would be OK. All of it, including his separation from his mother, was to give his only grandson a better future. Two things, however, derailed his grandfather’s plans for him: First, Vargas came out as gay in high school—this was in the 1990s—making the prospect of getting a green card through marriage much trickier. Second, the teenaged Vargas, instead of letting the news defeat him, convinced himself that he could earn the right to call himself an American.

In the next decade, he would work hard, get a job, pay his taxes, be successful, even earn a Pulitzer (as he did in 2007 as part of the Washington Post team covering the Virginia Tech shootings), and prove he had the right to be here. That this was his home, just like any other American.

But, despite all of his accomplishments, at 32 years old, Vargas is still undocumented. He and 11 million people in the U.S. are, as he says, “Americans at heart, but without the right papers to show for it.” A couple of years ago, Vargas, tired of living a lie and inspired by immigration activists who were speaking out for change, revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant in the biggest way possible: a 2011 New York Times Magazine tell-all essay.

Vargas, center, speaks at a June 2012 news conference supporting President Obama’s announcement to stop deportations of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

Since then, he’s been traveling the country, sharing his story not only with his supporters, but also his detractors. He explains that when people tell him to get in back of the line, that there is no line. He explains that he hasn’t been able to hug his own mother—with whom he’s had a strained relationship—in over 20 years, because if he leaves the country, he will not be able to come back to see the family he’s gained in the States. When he testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2013, he asked members of Congress, “What do you want to do with us?” Though he cannot benefit from the DREAM Act, legislation that would give undocumented youth a pathway to citizenship, he is a vocal advocate of it and of immigration reform. And he is inspiring many others. Ju Hong, a Korean American immigration activist who also came out as undocumented, calls Vargas “my great friend, my mentor and my role model.”

Vargas’ autobiographical documentary—fittingly titled Documented— premiered at DC’s AFI Docs Film Festival last year, and it has been picked up for U.S. distribution by CNN Films. In an interview at the San Diego Asian Film Festival last November, Vargas talked about his evolving roles, from journalist to activist and filmmaker.

When did you decide you wanted to turn your story into a film?

This was not the film that I originally wanted to make. You know that Time magazine cover? (Vargas was asked to be on the cover of Time with the title “We Are Americans* / *Just not legally,” and he requested to bring 35 more undocumented immigrants to stand behind him for the photo shoot.) Originally I was going to do a DREAM Act film. I was following five undocumented young people from various backgrounds, and I wanted to tell that story Waiting for Superman style. And when you’re doing a vérité documentary, you just film, film, film, because you don’t know what you’re going to get.

Halfway through filming, one of my filmmaker friends asked me, “How could you do a film on immigration and not include your mom?” Now, I barely talk to my mom, much less want to see her on film. [As for being on camera,] I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have any mirrors in my apartment outside of the bathroom. I don’t even like photos of myself anywhere. That’s why the last two years have been very uncomfortable.  I’m used to being the interviewer. My work was my life, and I wasn’t prepared for my life to be my work.

In some ways, this film isn’t what I wanted to make, but it was what I needed to make. I was frankly afraid of myself.

What were you afraid of?

It’s one thing to deal with this issue privately; it’s a whole other thing to put it out there, especially when you’re part of an Asian American family.  There’s a lot of denial and a lot of shame in our community, and I’m saying this as somebody who’s talked to undocumented Koreans, Chinese, Cambodians, Filipinos, etc. There’s still a lot of shame, even though at least 1.3 million out of 11 million undocumented immigrants are Asian.

Let me ask you though. Did anything surprise you when you were watching the film?

Well, I was familiar with your story, so I already knew things like—that you found out your green card was fake at 16, you were going to come out as undocumented in the New York Times story, you were going to call ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to ask whether you were going to be deported, but it was so different to read about versus to see it on film.

Writing and filming are two very different things. With writing, I can make anything present. I can lie. Film is very literal. Here’s a camera; watch what happens. It’s all there.

I remember that day when it was announced that DREAMers (aged 29 and under) would be able to apply for protection against deportation, but you (at 30 years old) missed the cut-off by several months. At the time, you were interviewed by CNN and all these TV stations, and you were so calm about it. But in the documentary, you see your real reaction to the news. (In a particularly heartbreaking moment, Vargas’ loved ones text to congratulate him, and he knows they haven’t yet realized that he doesn’t qualify for relief.)

I had to be calm about it! But for the film, it’s a whole different ballgame.

How do you be vulnerable on camera? I have so many friends that I’ve known for years, since middle school or high school, and they’ve told me, “Oh my God, it’s like I’m meeting you for the first time.” When you’re undocumented, you hide so much of yourself from people. I don’t like talking about my mom, about pain and all that stuff. But you see it on film, and it’s all there.

In terms of this whole filming process, I think everybody should do it.  We spend so little time talking to our own family, putting the camera in front of your parents and asking, “What was the plan?” Especially with Asians, we’re so busy trying to become successful, trying to live up to the myth of this American Dream. The moment that the footage of my mother came back from the Philippines (Jose was unable to go himself, so the crew was sent there to film her), and I saw her on the screen looking directly into the camera, it was like seeing a ghost. I wasn’t sure how she was going to come across on camera, but this woman had been wanting to tell her story. So this film Documented—it’s not just documenting me, it’s also documenting her. In some ways, it’s her film. The last shot of the film is her.

Speaking of which, that was another thing that surprised me: The first part of the film is about your backstory, immigration issues and activism, which I was expecting, but then suddenly, your mother comes into the picture…

And then it became something else. (Laughs.) It’s like, what just happened?  Weren’t we just in Miami?

Yeah, and the mother-son story hits you harder because you know what’s at stake.

Sometimes I wish it wasn’t my story. I wish I was just reporting on somebody. I wish there was some distance or a wall. We screened the film in Milwaukee and this mid 40s-50s white dude, very nice, said to me, “I had a very unsettled feeling after watching this film.” And I was like, “That’s good! I want you to be unsettled.”

And he said, “There were some parts, especially with your mom, where you didn’t come across as likable. Was that intended?” (Laughs.)

Well, when I decided to do this, the goal wasn’t to be likable or unlikable.  I didn’t want to show you a film where we wrap the story in a bow and say, “Now they’re united through Skype!” I wanted the messiness. I wanted all these unanswered questions and mixed emotions. You want to talk to me about a broken immigration system? Well, let me show you a broken family. That’s what a broken immigration system is. Don’t talk to me about the border. Don’t talk to me about illegal people, Republicans or Democrats. Let me show you what a broken immigration system looks like.

Again, I think filming yourself is something everybody should experience.  I didn’t fully see myself until I saw who this person was onscreen, you know? We delude ourselves. I’ve always tried to present myself a certain way. And let’s be honest, I’m the most privileged undocumented person in America. But very early on, I decided I wasn’t going to let this break me, and yet, you watch the film, and no matter the amount of quote-unquote success I have, you see a broken person. You saw the film! Do I seem healthy to you? Don’t I seem like a mental mess? (Laughs.) Isn’t it surprising that I’m actually a pretty humorous person in real life? I’m a mess!  But look, I made this film. A couple of documentary people had approached me in the beginning and wanted to film my story, but I wanted to do it myself. I did not want to do a film where I’m putting myself on a pedestal. I had to show the complications of it. That was really important to me.

How do you think your background as a journalist informs your activism?

I’ve always thought that I traffic in empathy. I traffic in stories that lead to connection. I get called a lot of things now—an advocate or an activist— but as far as I’m concerned, I’m a reporter at heart. I’m interested in why you feel what you feel. So even if you’re saying something hateful, I try to be in your shoes, try to figure out why you think what you think.

But at the same time, the rug has to be pulled inside out. So it’s about figuring out: “OK, you don’t hate people like me. You don’t even know me. You’ve created this whole reality that isn’t my reality.” So much of the problem is that we have a big misinformation gap, and I’d argue the gap is oceanic. That’s why we have an immigration issue that’s wrapped in the border, wrapped in Mexico, wrapped in “illegal people.” So I think we have to really figure out how we tell these stories within our own communities, but also: How do we work with other communities? What kind of alliances should we be building? How do we raise the level of consciousness?

In the film, you’re often going out of your way to engage your detractors into deeper conversations—whether it’s the drunk man ranting in the film (who tells Vargas that illegals should “get the motherf-ck out of here”) or supporters at a Mitt Romney rally in Iowa. Have you found that there are certain things that work best, in terms of getting them to stop and listen even if they have preconceived notions about you?

Well, the taxes thing, clearly. The fact that I pay my taxes. And I think once you focus it on the mother-son story and tell them: “This is my country.  I dare you to tell me this is not my country. That’s my flag, even though it doesn’t recognize me.” And sometimes, the fact that I didn’t know until I was 16. That said, there are some people who say, “Don’t blame the kids for the mistakes of the parents.” But what was the mistake of the parent? What is the mistake of parents who just want to provide for their children? So it’s about taking it out of the usual context that they know it.

Do they take you more seriously when they realize you’re a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist?

It’s funny you ask because I actually didn’t want to include that. As someone who’s Asian, we’re so used to the “model minority” thing, and now we’re building this whole “model immigrant” image. But at the end of the day, not everyone’s a valedictorian.  Not everyone wants to be a doctor or lawyer. At the end of the day, people just want to be able to drive on the freeway and not pee in their pants when they see a cop. They just want to be able to go to work and provide for their family.  It’s not about [what kind of success you have], and it shouldn’t be.

I read an interview you did in Milwaukee where the writer mentions that, even though there’s no way for you to get legal status yourself, you could now technically marry a gay citizen in New York.

Do you know somebody who wants to marry me?

(Laughs.) They quote you as saying, “I’m working on it.” Was that a joke, or are you serious?

(Laughs.) One of my filmmaker friends said, “Jose, we need to talk in the film about how you’ve never been in a long-term relationship.” I’ve never had a boyfriend. I’ve never had time!  I’ve never made time! If I could barely open up to my friends, how am I going to open up to a boyfriend? My friend said, ”You really need to make that clearer in the film,” and I was like, “I feel like I’ve given you enough. I can’t give you everything! Some things should be private!” (Laughs.) But it was a never a priority.

Happiness was never a priority for me.  Survival was the priority. Proving myself was the priority. I was fortunate that I was in a field that made me happy, but I feel like my life just started two-and-a-half years ago, when I first started doing this. And now, I’m finally asking myself questions like, “What’s going to make me happy?”

Looking forward, how do you hope this film influences your viewers?

Well, with Define American (Vargas’ nonprofit organization intended to open up dialogue about immigration and what it means to be an American), the big goal is figuring out how we preach beyond the choir. So it’s wonderful to show the film in San Diego, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, but what I really need to do is to show it in Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Kansas City, etc. I’ve done almost 200 events in 40 states, and I’m so happy to be able to go back to places like Alabama and Iowa, which provoke a lot of conversation.

Because I think a lot of this debate has to do with misinformation. “Why don’t you get in the back of the line?  Why haven’t they arrested you?” All these questions I get asked just underscores the misinformation that’s still out there.

This story was originally published by Asia Pacific Arts, a publication of the USC US-China Institute, a program of the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism. It is reprinted here with permission.

This article was published in the January 2014 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).