There's a scene in the new documentary Documented when former Washington Post reporter turned immigration reform advocate Jose Antonio Vargas goes to see Mitt Romney speak before the Iowa caucus. Four years before, Vargas had covered the caucus for the Post, but this time around he stood on the side of a townhall-style event in Cedar Rapids, holding a sign that read "I AM AN AMERICAN W/O PAPERS." Ever since his blockbuster New York Times Magazine article, "My Life As an Undocumented Immigrant," came out in 2011, Vargas has become, in his words, "a walking uncomfortable conversation," and his presence at the Romney talk was, well, sort of awkward.
Eventually, the local police came at the behest of the event's host and asked him to leave. On his way to the exit, Vargas turned to an officer and asked if he was being arrested. "No, no, no," replied the cop. Sensing an opportunity, Vargas pushed further: What do Iowa police do after stumbling upon an undocumented person? Identify the person, replied the cop, and call the proper federal authorities. "Are you going to do that?" Vargas asked. The officer's response was almost embarrassed: "No, sir."
Telling his personal story has in many ways become Vargas' work, starting with the Times Magazine piece and continuing with a Time cover story a year later. (And, as he freely admits, it likely has protected him from immigration enforcement.) Now, two years after he outed himself as undocumented, he's back with a new chapter, writing and codirecting a film that centers on his relationship with his mother, Emelie Salinas, whom he hasn't seen since leaving the Philippines 20 years ago.
Documented's premiere last Friday at Washington, DC's AFI Docs Film Festival—just as the Gang of Eight's immigration bill gains steam in the Senate—was timed for maximum exposure and influence. So what do Vargas and his advocacy group, Define American, have up their sleeves for this time next year? "I don't know what I'm going to do for the third anniversary," he told me last week. "I want by the third anniversary to have a green card."
Mother Jones: If I understand correctly, this wasn't exactly your initial plan for this film.
Jose Antonio Vargas: The original plan was I was going to make a film that was like Waiting for "Superman" meets the DREAM Act. I figured I had come out in the New York Times and was in a very privileged position to do that, right? After that piece I was like: I'm done, I don't have to tell you about me anymore—now I can go out there and be an undocumented journalist filmmaker and then tell the stories of other DREAMers. So that was my original conception. And then I started filming, that's why I went to Alabama, I went to Iowa, and I started finding DREAMers, mostly online, to do a film on how undocumented people are using social media to tell their own stories. Social media has been in many ways the backbone of the DREAMer movement; the DREAMer movement would not have happened if Twitter and Facebook and YouTube did not exist. I mean this is how people were literally able to find each other, form listservs, all that kind of stuff.
But then things kind of took a different turn. Once I started showing some of the footage to some of my friends, and one of my filmmaker friends said to me, "When are you going to realize this film is actually about your mom?" And I was like, "Um, how do I direct the film if I can't even go to the Philippines to film my mom?" But then I decided to do that, and I sent a small crew to the Philippines for a few days to document my mom. So the film took on kind of a much more personal route. It's basically, this tension between the private battle and the public battle.
MJ: Inward-facing versus outward-facing.
JAV: Yeah, exactly. The hardest stories we tell are always about ourselves. How do you explain that you have been missing your mother for 20 years? I don't know how to explain that to you. I wasn't even sure I wanted to film that, because I don't know how I felt about it. I didn't want to put her through it, and I frankly wasn't ready. Because since I was 16, I just had created my own life for myself, you know? I left when I was 12. I'm 32. And I have gotten to know my mother more through editing her and looking and watching and editing her footage, you know.
MJ: What was it like when you first started going through that footage?
JAV: I guess I hadn't realized how broken I had felt until I saw how broken she was. I mean, we talk on the phone. Like many immigrant families, I've been supporting her and my half-siblings since I was in my early 20s. I helped financially support them, and then that's it. I don't want to have to think beyond that because I couldn't handle beyond that. You know, there was so much geographical and emotional separation. In many ways she had been a part of me that I don't really like talking about, you know? I was going through two journeys: There was the public journey; there was the private journey. And the public face was, I was going to try to go toe to toe with everybody, may it be Lou Dobbs or Bill O'Reilly or Michelle Malkin. But talking about my mom and allowing myself to be vulnerable like that was just not something that I do.
"I set out to document DREAMers, but what I ended up doing was actually documenting the experience of, the reality and truth of, the moms and the parents."
MJ: Many DREAMers I've spoken with have told me about being uncomfortable with the rhetoric about how DREAMers are blameless, and how they shouldn't be punished for "the sins of their parents." They feel like it sells out their folks.
JV: That to me is such an oversimplification and really, in many ways, it tells us where the conversation is. Like, the DREAMers are the safe ones, right? It's okay to advocate for the DREAMers because they're the English-speaking, college-educated ones, right? It's so interesting that I set out to document DREAMers, but what I ended up doing was actually documenting the experience of, the reality and truth of, the moms and the parents. The film is dedicated to my mom, you know. It's kind of to give her a platform, to not just tell her story, but to connect the dots and to kind of show what this is about.
Of course, it's only one story, right? It's only one mother, it's only one son, it's only one journey. There's always to me a universality—one of the things I learned early on as a journalist and a writer is that there's a universality in specifics. The more specific you get, the more universal it can be. And so I wanted to show that. I wanted to show the specificity and the complexity of this journey, the journey that I had and the journey that she had, and where we meet. And guess what? Where we meet is at a film. I mean, what the hell?
MJ: Still, aren't there limits to personal stories?
JAV: Well, that's like asking me what's the limit to humanity, right? The greatest gift that we have as human beings is our ability to empathize. That's why I think personal stories matter so much. That's someone's mom. That's someone's daughter. That's someone's son. I got here when I was 12, I found out I was undocumented when I was 16, I became a journalist when I was 17, and all I ever did was write other stories to run away from myself. And the past two years has been like this running toward yourself. And trying to be this public person to advocate for an issue but at the same time trying to get to know myself a little better. I don't do that. I'm supposed to just keep going. I was supposed to be so successful that they could not deny me anything. That was my goal.
"A broken immigration system means broken families means broken lives. That's what is at stake."
But no amount of success—whatever that means, quote-unquote success—no amount of success replaces the reality of being separated from my family for this long. And I didn't think until it literally stared me in the face, looking at her in the film, wrestling with myself and seeing her and seeing myself in her, that that's when the process starts. And again all I keep thinking about is, "My God, I'm one person going through this. How many countless people are going through the exact same thing?" The biggest equation here is the broken immigration system means broken families which means broken lives. That's what this is about. Let's take politics out of it. A broken immigration system means broken families means broken lives. That's what is at stake.