When Jose Antonio Vargas turned 16 years old, he did what almost every kid his age does. He applied for a driver’s permit. But when he went to the DMV, he got something unexpected: the truth about his immigration status. “The woman at the DMV told me that my green card was fake,” Vargas says. “And that’s how I found out that I was undocumented.”
Since then, Vargas, now 33, has graduated from high school and college and built a successful journalism career—he profiled Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker and won a Pulitzer Prize with the Washington Post for his and others’ coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. He also became one of the most prominent advocates of the nation’s 11.5 million undocumented residents, when he penned a first-person essay in 2011 for New York Times Magazine, admitting his immigration status and the fear and anxiety that has persisted since the DMV epiphany.
“The more I achieved, the more scared and depressed I became,” Vargas wrote. “I was proud of my work, but there was always a cloud hanging over it, over me.”
Twenty-one years since his mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in Mountain View, Vargas still doesn’t have formal status in the United States. In an effort to shine a light on the nation’s chaotic immigration policy, Vargas directed his first film, Documented, which delves into his own life and the experiences of other undocumented immigrants in America. He calls immigration reform “the most controversial, yet least understood issue in America by far,” and a premiere of his documentary will be shown Monday at San Jose State University’s Morris Dailey Auditorium. Vargas will also receive the 2014 William Randolph Hearst Foundation Award.
At age 12, Vargas’ mother put him on a plane with a man described as his uncle and came to live with his grandparents in Mountain View. He says he “learned to ‘speak American’ by watching every sitcom and drama and borrowing every movie from the Mountain View Public Library.” By the time he reached high school, Vargas was involved in nearly every extracurricular activity, according to Pat Hyland, Mountain View High School’s principal.
Vargas confided in Hyland when he came out as gay, and also when he learned the truth about his immigration status. “He said, ‘I need to share something with you,’” Hyland recalls. “He hesitated a little bit and said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ He found out so abruptly that it became a really earth-shattering event for him.”
“There was no Google, there was no Wikipedia, there wasn’t an Internet where I could type ‘illegal alien,’” Vargas says. “When I found out I was undocumented, there was none of that, so I was seriously convinced that I was the only non-Latino ‘illegal’ immigrant.”
Complicating matters, California’s Proposition 187—a ballot initiative designed to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing public services, such as healthcare and education—had been approved by voters just three years earlier, setting an anti-immigrant tone throughout the state.
Vargas’ revelation didn’t change Hyland’s opinion of the talented student. “No worries, we’ll get through it,” she recalls telling him, as there have always been undocumented students in the school district. She and other school officials rallied behind Vargas, offering help in whatever ways they could.
Hyland bought Vargas his first laptop and his first suit, since his grandparents couldn’t afford either. His choir teacher, Jill Denny, changed the location of their annual trip from Japan to Hawaii so that Vargas could attend. And Rich Fischer, the school superintendent who became another close mentor to Vargas, took him to see an immigration lawyer and helped him secure funding for college—undocumented immigrants were not eligible for financial aid at that time. “They didn’t ask for pieces of paper to prove that I’m an American or a human being,” Vargas says. “They saw me as one of their own kids.”
But the one thing they couldn’t do for Vargas was get him full legal status.
“For someone like Vargas, there are very limited options,” says Allison Davenport, who runs the international human rights clinic at the University of California, Berkeley. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a dramatic rise in immigration, Davenport explains, and with it, an increased level of enforcement. “But as we secured the borders, migration became less fluid and migrants remained in the United States because they couldn’t return as easily as they once had,” she says. Today there is no clear path for the nation’s 11.5 million undocumented immigrants to attain legal status.
“There’s a myth that people need to play by the rules,” Davenport says, “but there simply aren’t any rules for undocumented persons to play by.”
Vargas could not get status through his family. Even though his grandparents were naturalized citizens, U.S. immigration law does not allow grandparents to petition their grandchildren. He also couldn’t gain citizenship through adoption—Hyland tried—since he was too old. And Vargas couldn’t get status through marriage, unless he was going to lie about his sexual orientation.
“People literally ask me, ‘Why don’t you get in back of the line?’” Vargas says. “But then I tell them, ‘There’s no line.’ That’s why we need immigration reform—there is no line.
“The reason I really became a journalist was because I found out that that as a journalist, you get a byline. If you’re undocumented, that means you don’t have the right papers to be here. … Being in the newspaper, for me, was a way of existing.”
Vargas started his career at the Mountain View Voice while a college student at San Francisco State University. He became a “copy boy,” running errands and stringing together articles, at the San Francisco Chronicle and took internships at the Philadelphia Daily News and Washington Post. After graduation, he returned to the Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his team’s coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. He moved on to the Huffington Post and in 2010 he got his first taste for film, writing the screenplay for The Other City, a documentary on Washington, D.C.’s HIV-infected population.
But it was in 2011 that Vargas made his biggest splash, when he wrote the “coming out” essay for New York Times Magazine about his undocumented status. In the piece—which won the Sidney Award for socially conscious journalism—Vargas admitted to and apologized for using forged documents to gain employment.
Vargas says that he feared Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would come for him, but his admission had the opposite effect. A year after the essay was published, President Obama announced that he would halt the deportation of young undocumented residents who met certain requirements. According to Davenport, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was designed as a “stop-gap measure” to provide temporary relief while Congress worked on immigration reform.
Since Vargas first discovered his immigration status in 1997, California passed its own version of the DREAM Act, which allows undocumented youth to access state financial aid and in-state tuition for higher education. And with the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Vargas finally has a potential path to citizenship; he is too old to qualify for DACA.
But true immigration reform remains elusive. The federal DREAM Act is still nothing more than a proposal since its introduction in 2001, despite stated bi-partisan support. Under the Obama administration, deportations have risen to the “highest levels in the country’s history,” says Gabriella Villareal, policy manager of the California Immigration Policy Center. And although President Obama called on Americans to “fix our broken immigration system” in his recent State of the Union address, Speaker John Boehner announced in February that House Republicans had no interest in immigration reform this year.
Vargas says his new documentary is “trying to make the cultural argument” for immigration reform. “Any new immigrant will tell you that the first thing we learn about America is through films and movies,” he says. “I always believed that culture plays a central role in how we relate to each other and how we see each other.
“The politics of the immigration issue are so toxic and partisan, that we really need culture to step up so we can reframe the conversation.”