‘Documented’: Illegal in a Nation Open to (Some) Immigrants


Español Jose Antonio Vargas is a journalist who graduated from San Francisco State University, California, in 2004. He came to the United States in 1993 as a 12 year old to live with his grandparents, and from that moment on he lived a lie.

Four years later, in 1997 and at the age of 16, he went to get a California driver’s license, but he discovered that his grandparents had given him fake identity documents. His illegal-immigrant status now known, it became a concrete barrier to a free and open life. Vargas also stopped talking to his mother, as resentment overwhelmed him.

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Nothing to Be Ashamed Of

In 2011, Vargas decided to come out and let everyone know what his immigration status was with an essay for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. After that, he began his fight to gain legal status. He considers himself a US American, having lived here for more than 20 years; he just needs the papers to prove it.

To raise awareness, Vargas came up with the idea of putting his experiences on film, together with those of other people going through the same problems. Documented, shown in South Florida this month (June 6-8) at O Cinema Miami Shores, took three years of work before it reached the public eye.

Jose Antonio Vargas' "Documented" poster. Source: Facebook.
Jose Antonio Vargas’s Documented poster. (Facebook)

“Originally my plan was to come out, and then I was going to tell the story of four more undocumented people,” Vargas says.

The final result ended up being the story of his life with all family members involved, which added a touching layer. Vargas, however, is not necessarily proud of this element of the film, because his desire was not to be liked by everyone. Rather, he wanted to show the less-pleasant immigration story in the United States, and what is and isn’t being done about it — to spread the word.

“I employed 40 people in making this film,” Vargas points out. “Undocumented people are not allowed to be employed legally, but they are legally eligible to start their own businesses,” he notes with irony.

The film presents all the ups and downs Vargas had to go through before and during the fight for his freedom. He was in the shadows for 15 years, working with fake documents and afraid of deportation or even imprisonment. Vargas managed to work in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Daily News, and Huffington Post, all without being discovered.

Jose Antonio Vargas. (Facebook)

When he came out as an illegal immigrant, though, his driver’s license was revoked — just another obstacle on his path. Vargas did not have any other type of identity document, so he went to the Philippine Consulate General to get a passport, even though this would not have a visa in it.

Taking a Stand on Principle

He could then get caught anytime he traveled across the United States, and sometimes that kept him up at night. But despite it all, he decided to forge on with his cause. He created a nonprofit organization called “Define American,” which is an eye opener for all of those who have not thought deeply about the 11 million illegal residents in the United States.

After finding out about the plan his grandfather had for him — to bring him to the United States, expect him to work under the table, and see him marry a US woman — he decided that he was not going to do that.

“I made the decision of not getting married for papers,” said Vargas. “I just did not want to go by what my grandfather wanted.”

Moreover, Vargas has been giving the “dreamers” — young people who came to the United States illegally and have been fighting for an opportunity to get citizenship — all his support. Before coming out with his own quandary, he did not know anything about the dreamers or even the Dream Act, but once aware, he started to get in contact with them.

Vargas then knew he was not the only one fighting for the cause: legal integration for those who fall through the cracks of a broken and inhumane immigration system. He resolved to put the dreamers’ faces out there as well.

In June 2012, the journalist appeared on the front cover of Time magazine, accompanied by 30 dreamers, which led the Obama administration to stop deportations of young immigrants and allow them to have work permits to remain in the country. However, only those who were 30 years old or under qualified for the program, so one more time, Vargas, 31 at the time, lost his chance at legal residency.

Remembering What Matters

At the end of the film, Vargas finally makes the decision to get back in contact with his mother through Skype, after not sharing a word with her for almost 17 years. He refused to accept her on Facebook before and avoided talking about her for many years. Today, he talks with her more often, thanks to technology, and keeps getting the message across and making his “Define American” movement grow bigger.

“Is there anything more natural than moving? To go where you want to go?” Vargas posed to an audience of 20 people at the opening in Miami. “If you are an American citizen, I hope you do not take it for granted. If you have a passport, I hope you use it.”

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