Jose Antonio Vargas’s Eye-Opening Film DOCUMENTED to Air on CNN Tomorrow Night

On Sunday, June 29, CNN will be broadcasting the film Documented, which tells the personal story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and aims to show a full, complex picture of what it looks like to be an undocumented immigrant in America. Story by Ada Tseng.

Until 2011, when he penned a New York Times Magazine essay revealing his own status as an undocumented immigrant in America, Jose Antonio Vargas had been living a double life. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who had made a prestigious career for himself interviewing Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker and Al Gore for Rolling Stone, as well as covering the Virginia Tech shootings for the Washington Post, was living in the United States without official papers, terrified that he’d be deported at any minute if his secret was discovered.

Vargas was born in the Philippines and brought over to live with his grandparents in Mountain View, Calif., when he was 12 years old. It wasn’t until four years later, when he went to apply for a driver’s license, that he learned his papers were fake. Vargas’ grandfather had bought him a fraudulent green card as an attempt to give him a better life in the U.S., and the tentative plan was for his mother to follow (which didn’t work out) and for Vargas to work low-key jobs in the service industry (as they had) until he could hopefully marry a citizen and obtain legal papers in the future.

While this news may have scared many teenagers completely into hiding, the young Vargas was determined to prove himself worthy of the title of “American.” However, 15 years later, as an extremely successful, tax-paying adult who had achieved what some may see as the “American Dream,” Vargas was tired of lying to the world. Only when he outed himself in a national newspaper, in the most public way possible, was he able to join fellow undocumented activists and become a prominent voice and face in the controversial, high-profile immigration debates. He would later testify in front of the Senate in February 2013 about immigration reform and create Define American, a campaign and nonprofit organization that seeks to elevate the conversation about immigration in this country.

Being sworn in before the Senate.

Being sworn in before the Senate.

His autobiographical documentary, Documented, which Vargas produced and co-directed, had its U.S. theatrical premiere in May 2013 and will air on CNN this summer. The film documents his personal struggles in the context of the ongoing challenges of the U.S. immigration system as a whole. In a CNN article Vargas wrote last March explaining why he made Documented, he reminds the reader that, every day, an estimated 1,100 immigrants are deported and the U.S. government has deported a record number of more than 2 million immigrants in just the last five years. The film not only details his story but also features interviews with his mother in the Philippines, who he, because he cannot leave the country, has not seen in person in two decades.

“Halfway through filming, one of my filmmaker friends asked me, ‘How could you do a film on immigration and not include your mom?’” remembers Vargas. “Now, I barely talk to my mom, much less want to see her on film.” But Vargas came to understand that he couldn’t fully tackle his own pain until he understood his mother’s suffering, and her compelling story became a tribute to all parents who make extremely difficult sacrifices for their children.

“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!’” says Vargas. “I wanted all these unanswered questions and mixed emotions,” he continues. “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.”

A photo of Jose Antonio Vargas and his mother in the Philippines before he was sent to America.

A photo of Jose Antonio Vargas and his mother in the Philippines before he was sent to America.

This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here







Watch JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS’ Award Video: Inspiration Award 2013

Earlier this month, Audrey Magazine and KoreAm Journal presented their 12th annual awards gala, Unforgettable. Historically, this event recognized the success of the Korean American community, but in honor of Audrey Magazine’s 10th anniversary, Unforgettable expanded to celebrate the achievements of the entire Pan-Asian community.

Aside from a lavishing dinner and show-stopping performances, Audrey Magazine and KoreAm Journal honored three individuals with achievement awards: producer of The Joy Luck Club and Shanghai Calling Janet YangYouTube artist David Choi and journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas.

Jose Antonio Vargas was presented with the Inspiration Award for his inspiring efforts to advance the Asian American community.

About Jose:
Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker, and the founder of Define American, a campaign that seeks to elevate the conversation around immigration. Additionally, he is a notable advocate for the DREAM Act, an American legislative proposal which seeks to uplift the immigrant community.

In June 2011, the New York Times Magazine published a groundbreaking essay he wrote in which he revealed and chronicled his life in America as an undocumented immigrant. A year later, he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine internationally with fellow undocumented Americans as part of a follow-up cover story. Since then, he has testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform, and written and directedDocumented, a documentary film on his undocumented experience. It world premiered in June 2013 as the centerpiece of the AFIDOCS film festival in Washington, D.C.


Spotlight on Unforgettable’s Awardees | Jose Antonio Vargas, Inspiration Award

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written for the likes of The New Yorker, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Rolling Stone to document stories of Americans around the country. Recently, he decided to tell his own story.

The Philippines-born Vargas was brought over to America as a young child and didn’t even know he didn’t have the right papers until he went to take his driver’s permit test as a teenager and was told his ID was fake. As a young adult, he became obsessed with proving himself as a true American, doing excellent work, paying his taxes, and eventually winning a Pulitzer — even if it meant keeping a very big secret. Eventually, he was tired of hiding and lying about his identity. He shook America with his 2011 The New York Times Magazine essay, in which Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant.

Since then, Vargas continues to fight for the plight of undocumented immigrants, which many dismiss as “illegals.” He’s founded the organization Define American, which shares the many different stories much like his own. Earlier this year, he not only testified before the U.S. Senate on immigration reform but he also turned his personal story into a documentary film — fittingly called Documented — which premiered as the centerpiece for the AFIDOCS film festival in Washington D.C.

How did your documentary Documented come about?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Well, this was not the film I was originally going to make. Originally I was going to do a DREAM Act film. I was following five different people with different backgrounds, and I was going to do it Waiting for Superman style. Where you’re doing a vérité-style documentary, you just film, film, film, because you don’t know what you’re going to get.

And then halfway through the filming, one of my filmmaker friends asked me, “How could you do a film on immigration and not include your mom?” I barely talk to my mom [who he hasn’t seen in over 20 years because she lives in the Philippines, and he cannot leave the US], let alone did I want to see her on film…. So in some ways the [autobiographical] film was not something I wanted to make, but it was a film that I needed to make.


On the Define American page, the Documented logo is made up images of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Why did you want to link your story with images of social media?

Jose Antonio Vargas: It’s the idea that undocumented people are documenting their lives. For many people, social media is a narcissistic cesspool of vanity. [laughs] It’s just what I ate yesterday and where I’m going tonight. But for undocumented people that aren’t even recognized by the government, it’s our way to be recognized.


For more information on 2013’s Unforgettable annual gala, click here.

For free tickets to our Unforgettable after party, click here. Hope to see you there!