Journalist has a personal motivation for his undocumented Americans crusade

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE 

By Cynthia Price

Legal News
 
Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented American, Pulitzer Prize winner, and journalist for respected news outlets from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Washington Post, is a highly emotional man.

The film he made to let the world know the plight of the nearly 12 million undocumented Americans in the United States, called Documented, is unflinching in showing Vargas weep over his conflicted feelings about his Filipino mother, whom he has not seen for almost 21 years.

And when he visited Grand Rapids to deliver the keynote address at the debut American Civil Liberties Union West Michigan luncheon on June 11, he was clearly moved by the stories of those who won awards, and expressed his appreciation for them before he began speaking.

Vargas “came out” — an expression he acknowledges came from the gay rights movement, and something he had done himself as a gay person while in high school — on his citizenship status with a splash in 2011, with a lengthy essay in the New York Times Magazine ?entitled “Outlaw.”

At the ACLU luncheon, he said he was touring around the country covering the 2008 presidential election, having already been part of the team from the Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for three articles about the Virginia Tech shootings, including one he authored solely about the connections students made afterwards through technology. He read the book The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, while on buses to follow candidates in the primary. Impressed by the book’s message about the power of the media in drawing attention to the facts about racial segregation and its horrible results, he started pondering the potential for spreading the word about the anguish the undocumented feel.

But in Documented, Vargas dives deeper into his motivation. After 2008, he started following the movement of young undocumented people who had “come out” and who wanted to see passage of The DREAM Act, legislation which would grant conditional permanent residency to immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools, have lived in the country for at least five years (continuously) before the act becomes law, and who arrived in the United States as minors. The young people who would benefit, many of whom are involved in this largely social-media-based movement, are often called Dreamers.

Vargas found these brave young people inspiring, in particular one of the leaders in the movement, Gaby Pacheco. He realized he just could not keep his secret any longer.

At the ACLU luncheon, Vargas said, “I also wrote this essay to make sense of the sacrifices of my own family – my mother decided she was going to put me on a plane so I could go to my grandparents who were already here legally, in Mountain View, California.”
 
But before he went public with his undocumented status, he pulled together three of his close friends to plan a media strategy that would be effective in making the American public appreciate the difficulty of not having “papers.” After he wrote his essay for the New York Times Magazine, Vargas took off on a cross-country speaking tour.

About a year later, he wrote another article, this one for Time Magazine, spreading his research about the huge number of people facing the undocumented dilemma; explaining that most Dreamers are productive people, dedicated to America, who paid over $11 billion in taxes in 2010; and talking about what had happened since the New York Times article appeared.

The same Gaby Pacheco helped him recruit others for the magazine cover shown at right, and she is quoted in the article as saying, “In our movement, you come out for  yourself, and you come out for other people.”

Vargas structured the article as a series of questions he had encountered along his speaking tour, and the first one was, “Why haven’t you gotten deported?” He confesses that he does not know; the only repercussion at that time was losing his drivers’ license, which he was able to replace with a Filipino passport, though not one with a visa in it. The film reveals his anxiety when he takes a plane the first time, but no one arrests him or questions his credentials.

Documented details honestly the complicated relationship between Vargas and his very distraught mother, who was filmed by the crew without his presence (since he could not go to the Philippines without risking having to stay there, and she cannot come here). There is no grand resolution, but Vargas does eventually tell her, over Skype, that he loves her.

His grandparents had a plan of sorts for little Jose: he would get a job, fall in love with an American woman, and get his citizenship when they married “But you know, the whole being gay thing complicated that,” he told the ACLU audience. When he found out the truth about his illegal status after he was turned away from the Department of Motor Vehicles at the age of 16, he became emotionally estranged from his grandparents. The gifted young man found a number of surrogate parents, supporters and mentors, some of whom knew and kept his secret.

The film also follows Vargas as he finds out about President Barack Obama’s announcement the same month the Time article was published  (June 2012) that the administration will allow Dreamers a path to citizenship, provided they are 29 years old or younger. At the time, Vargas was 31, a bitter disappointment.

But he has not given up. He founded the organization Define American  whose web page (www.define american.com) says, “Our request is simple: Let's talk.”  
 
Vargas has talked, in a reasonable and measured tone, with everyone from a drunk young man whose girlfriend is clearly embarrassed by his harassment of Vargas, to well-meaning older couples who have lots of advice about how he can obtain his documents, to Congress. 

The Senate has passed an immigration reform bill, but the House refuses to take it up. Early this week, President Obama —?whose administration has actually deported non-citizens in record numbers —?announced that he has asked members of the executive branch to “identify additional actions my administration can take within my existing legal authorities, to do what Congress refuses to do and fix as much of our immigration system as we can.”
 

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