Listen to ACLU SoCal's interview with journalist, filmmaker and advocate Jose Antonio Vargas
In an essay for The New York Times Magazine in 2011, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and founder of Define America Jose Antonio Vargas revealed that he is an undocumented immigrant.
Two years later, Jose released his self-directed documentary film Documented, which opens this weekend. In it, he describes how his mother put him on a plane bound for California from the Philippines when he was 12 years old. Once here, he discovered what it meant to live without legal status: the fear of being discovered and the pain of realizing that he might never see his mother again.
Jose decided to tell his deeply personal story as a way to help focus attention on the stories of so many other undocumented immigrants – those who risk everything to provide for their children and the children who grow up in fractured families as a result.
His story, like that of so many others, is yet another painful reminder of our broken immigration system, a system that has failed to recognize the reality that 11 million immigrants are part of the fabric of our society – working in our homes, caring for our children, paying taxes, but without any way to gain legal status.
I caught up with Jose ahead of his film screening in Los Angeles this weekend. You can read excerpts or listen to our full interview below.
Jose Antonio Vargas: My name is Jose Antonio Vargas. I am the writer and director of a documentary called Documented, and I'm the founder of DefineAmerican.com. Four years after arriving, when I was 16, I discovered I was here illegally without the right documents. [...] I was 16 and I went to the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] to get a driver’s permit, [that] is when I realized.
SH: [...] The projections are between 60,000 to 100,000 kids may be coming next year to find a mother, a father, their families. When you were 13 years old do you think you could have asserted your rights to a border patrol agent; do you think you would have been able to explain?
JAV: I didn’t really speak English all that comfortably, or all that well. I was just so disoriented coming here and being here. I had a different conception of what America was suppose to be. I thought it was a Disneyland. I had a different conception. No, I don’t think I had that kind of foresight to assert myself in that way. [...]
SH: What is the last memory you have of your mother and you together?
JAV: The last memory that is in my head is when I left, that morning she hurriedly woke me up and told me I didn’t even have time to shower. In the Philippines, there was no shower, you had to get water and use a tub. I didn’t even have time to get water. So the last memory was not being able to take a shower, brushing my teeth. She shoves me in a cab. I was 12. I didn’t really realize how traumatic of a moment it was until probably years later because I don’t remember it as clearly as I thought I did. My mother, when we filmed her, had a different memory of what happened that morning. That was the morning she put me on the plane to America.
SH: At what age do you think you understood why you were separated from your mother?
JAV: At 16. I had assumed that she would follow. It took longer and longer and longer for her to follow. When I was 16, that is kind of when the lie that they had built started to unravel. I had gone to the DMV, and I figured out my mom wasn’t really coming at all, and the uncle that I was introduced to was actually a smuggler that they paid $4,000 to get me here. That’s when my job as a reporter started because I was trying to figure out what the hell did they do. At that time there was no Internet. I couldn’t just Google this thing. That was during the time of Proposition 187, the godfather of all these anti-immigrant laws, like SB 1070. I thought I was the only non-Latino person in America that was in this situation.
"The idea of coming to America to provide for yourself and for your family is a quintessentially American thing."
SH: Like you, there are thousands of other kids who are now adults, or soon to be adults that face the same reality, and are separated from one or both parents. What do you think America doesn’t understand about their situation?
JAV: I think what America doesn’t understand about that situation is how American that is, meaning how American it is for parents to send their kids, or to come here, so they can provide for their kids, or to come here and to leave their kids behind. The idea of coming to America to provide for yourself and for your family is a quintessentially American thing. That’s what the Irish did in the 1850s when there was a potato famine, and they crossed the border that was the Atlantic Ocean and landed in Ellis Island in New York with no papers. Did we call them criminals then?
So again, this is why we launched a campaign called "Define American." We didn’t call it "Define Immigrant." And I think what is really interesting is that I don’t think Americans understand how un-American it is for us to continue to perpetuate not only stereotypes, but to continue to support policies that separate families.
SH: What is it about immigration policy that people don’t understand when it comes to these kids? There is a moment in the film where two people repeatedly tell you that you simply haven’t tried the right channels to legalize.
JAV: I don’t think we can overstate the lack of information and the depth of misperceptions that are out there about immigration, the immigration process and people like me. This is where you can kind of squarely place the blame on the media when it comes to this lack of understanding. People don’t understand that there isn’t any line for me to get in the back of; there is no process. So what are these kids supposed to do? What are these parents supposed to do?
What is so interesting is that once I started this campaign, everybody just started to make the argument that I am fighting for the Dream Act. Of course, I support the Dream Act, but it is only one slice of a very complicated pie. What about the parents? What about the older siblings?
SH: In the film, it takes you a very long time to finally connect with your mother. Why is that, and what are the larger lessons for all those kids that are maybe in a similar situation?
JAV: [...] First of all, that is the truth. Second of all, it underscores the complexity of the issue…what happens to families when they are separated for almost two decades? I don’t even know that I can explain that to you, I can’t even describe in writing what kind of pain that is because all I know is that I have just been numbing myself about it. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want it to consume me, so I put it in a filing cabinet in my mind. And then in one scene in the film it all comes bursting out.
SH: You made a wonderful documentary [...]
JAV: People ask me why I made this film. I became a writer because I wanted to see my name on a piece of paper because I thought that was a way to exist. I learned about America through films and through movies, through television, before I figured what a Republican or Democrat was, or before I even knew who the governor was. Culture to me is central in how we make sense of this country in our placement. Culture, to me, is the central way we do that. I made the film to say: "Guess what! There are 11 million undocumented people in this country, and one of them made a film just that to tell you we really are here, that we really do exist, and that at its core immigration is about family. That is what immigration is about."
SH: Some have suggested that if this exodus that we are seeing in Central America we are seeing were taking place in any other part of the world they consider it a humanitarian crisis and these individuals were refugees who needed our help?
JAV: It is a humanitarian crisis […] Why are people moving? Why are these kids doing what they are doing? Why are their parents coming here to begin with? What do civil wars and trade agreements have to do with that? We are only beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding the depth and the scope of this issue. The fact that the mainstream media doesn’t even really realize we have a civil rights movement happening and that there is a moral crisis in the county kind of tells you where we are. And for the most part the American public, there is no sense of urgency. The president likes to talk about, when he got elected president, the fierce urgency of now. Where is that when it comes to this issue?
So long as people’s food is on the table, so long as they are getting their apples and their strawberries, so long as someone is mowing their lawns, so long as they can count on someone from Home Depot to make sure they can get a roof and at a cheap rate, no one seems to care. Why?
SH: Sunday is Mother’s Day. What does Mother’s Day mean for you, and does it mean anything different to you this year?
JAV: It’s a little different because something that was very private to me, in some ways the most painful part of me that I held on to, and I didn’t even share with my friends, is now public. My mother has seen the film, all versions of it. Thankfully, she doesn’t have a problem with it. I am in L.A. for the screenings of the film in Westwood. I go to Phoenix on Sunday. Who would have ever thought that Arizona would be the new Alabama? I’ll be in Arizona, in Phoenix [...]. The film is showing in Phoenix. I am going to be with some undocumented mothers and their kids. I think in some way, it is a fitting way to celebrate that day. And very privately, I will talk to my mom.
SH: What does your mom say now, that you are both adults, how does she explain why she sent you here?
JAV: I think our relationship is just starting because I finally got to know her. How often do kids really get to know their kids as adults, making decision and choices, and not making judgments, and having empathy?
And as a journalist, as a filmmaker, I always believed that I kind of trafficked in empathy. A friend said to me recently: "The thing you did with this film is you finally had some empathy for yourself." That was kind of an interesting comment because it is true. I found empathy for my own mom. I always worried about my own pain, but never worried about hers. That was really selfish.
SH: Do you feel like you have a mom again?
JAV: Yes, I do, in some surreal way, yes. But I have always had lots and lots of moms of every possible ethnicity and color. I think have been adopted by so many mothers in this country, I have lost count.
Learn moreFind out how ACLU SoCal defends and advocates for immigrant rights, and watch the official trailer of Jose Antonio Vargas's Documented.
Sandra Hernandez is senior communications officer at the ACLU of Southern California.