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Pulitzer-Winning Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas on “Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American”

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As comprehensive immigration reform has languished in Congress, undocumented immigrants have increasingly come forward to share their stories in order to call attention to the need for a change in federal laws. One of the leading voices has been Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. In 2011, he outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine. He chronicles his experience in the new film, “Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn right now to the immigrants’ rights protests.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, well, throughout the world Thursday, millions marched in the streets to celebrate May Day, a workers’ rights holiday that has its roots in the United States, when unionized immigrant workers successfully organized to demand an eight-hour workday. Many of the day’s events in the United States focused on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. This is Dominique Hernandez of the New York State Youth Leadership Council speaking at a May Day rally here in Manhattan.

DOMINIQUE HERNANDEZ: My father worked a lot and really, really hard for me to actually be able to pay an education. Undocumented youth are not eligible to get any financial aid. And that’s what we’re working on right now. Of course it affects me directly when my father is unable to get a better job and when I’m unable to get a job because I am undocumented.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as immigration reform languishes in Congress, undocumented immigrants have increasingly come forward to share their stories in order to call attention to the need for its passage. One of the leading voices has been Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. In 2011, he outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine. Now a new film chronicles his experience. It’s called Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Jose Antonio Vargas of The Washington Post.

REPORTER: Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I lived the American dream, building a successful career as a journalist, but I was living a lie.

I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t told a lot of people. I’m actually an undocumented immigrant.

Immigration is stories. So here’s my story. My grandparents legally immigrated from the Philippines in the mid-1980s. My grandfather decided that he was going to get his grandson to come to America. One morning, my suitcase was packed. I was 12. It’s been 18 years since I’ve seen my mother. So, I’m launching a whole campaign about what it means to be an American and the fact that I am an American. There are 11 million undocumented people in this country.

In 2010, undocumented people paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes.

COLOMBIAN IMMIGRANT: My name is [inaudible]. I’m from Colombia.



GERMAN IMMIGRANT: I’m an undocumented immigrant from Germany.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: We mow your lawn. We work at your houses. Maybe we’re your doctors. Maybe we’re nurses. We’re not who you think we are.

MITT ROMNEY: People who have come here illegally should not be citizens of the United States.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: So what happens in Iowa if you discover, as a cop, that somebody is an undocumented person?

NEWS ANCHOR: A major blow for immigration reform today, the Senate voted against the DREAM Act.

LAWRENCE CALVERT: I’m a conservative, and I’m a hardcore Republican, but I don’t agree with them on this.

STEPHEN COLBERT: You’re an illegal alien.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: No, I’m an undocumented immigrant.

STEPHEN COLBERT: No, you’re an illegal.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: No, but wait, no, actually, this is—

STEPHEN COLBERT: I think I’ve broken the law just having you in my studio.


ANTONIO TAGUBA: Who is really the Americans? I would say people who came here to do good for this country.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: We dream of a path to citizenship. We dream of contributing to the country we call our home. I have this fantasy that I get a green card, and I fly, and that my mother will be there waiting for me.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American, written, produced and directed by Jose Antonio Vargas, who joins us now in our New York studio. The film opens tonight in New York at the Village East Cinema, coming to theaters all over the country. It’s set to air on CNN this summer.

Jose, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the—your journey, and your journey now in the context of what’s happening in Washington, D.C.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Well, thank you for having me here. I actually live just a few blocks away, so it’s always nice to be here.

I’m more convinced now than I was three years ago, when I outed myself, that before we change the politics of this issue, we have to change the culture of this issue. Right? I’ve done about 200 events in 42 states, traveling around the country while filming this film. And the fact that people still think we’re all, quote-unquote, “Mexicans,” if there’s anything wrong with being Mexican, and the fact that people think this is, you know, a Latino criminal issue, right, tells us kind of the long ways we have to go. And I have to tell you, like, for me, the most tragic thing doing all the traveling is how many people, after they find out that I’m Filipino, people say “illegal” and “Mexican” interchangeably. I mean, I have to say that that’s, for me, the most tragic thing. And that’s a big cultural problem, right? People think that just because you happen to be brown or Latino in this country, you’re not even supposed to be here, even if you were born here. And so, I really wanted to make a film—and this is why I wanted to direct the film myself—you know, to make a statement, right? And to me, the film is a cultural statement, not a political one. I worked pretty hard to make sure that it isn’t overly political, just so I can play it in places. I’ve done some—couple of tea party screenings, and doing a lot more conservative kind of oriented events.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But you started out, as I understand it, to make a film about the DREAMers.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And somehow or other, you then decided, reluctantly, to focus on your own story. Could you talk about that transition?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Very reluctantly. Well, first of all, I mean, I—after, you know, the privilege of outing myself in The New York Times—I mean, it was a 4,000-word essay, and I just—after that, I thought I was done. I didn’t want to have to say anything more than that. And so, originally, my—actually, my original idea was Inside Job for immigration. Charles Ferguson’s film was an original inspiration. And then, when I started filming, I was like, “Huh, do I really want to overpoliticize this issue?” So I’m like, Waiting for Superman meets the DREAM Act, right? At least that was my conception in my head. And then, about a year into filming, it kind of shifted. One of my filmmaker friends said, “You can’t do this film and not put your mom in it.” Then I decided to send a film crew to the Philippines. I mean, how do I direct a film if I can’t even go to the Philippines to film her, right? So I sent a film crew. And then—

AMY GOODMAN: Because you can’t leave this country.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Because I can’t leave the country. I’ve been here since I was 12, 18 years—21 years this August. So I sent a film crew. Then the footage gets back, and, you know, as you saw on the film, there’s like, you know, footage of my mom just looking straight into the camera. And that was just—you know, I’ve seen more of my mother in this film editing her than I have in 21 years. So it’s just very surreal, I have to say.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So then you made the decision to focus more on your own story—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and the impact on your family of the—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of your immigration status.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: But this is what happens, right? This is how you—how do you explain—I couldn’t write, you know, 21 years of not seeing her. I could not write that. But in some way, the film shows that, right? Like when she and I Skype for the first time on film, that’s the experience and the reality for so many, you know, immigrants of this family who are separated from their families all across the world. So I wanted to capture that kind of experience. And I think the film does that.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your own experience. You talk—you said you came to this country at the age of 12.


AMY GOODMAN: Your mother sent you here.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: My mother put me on a plane with a stranger, who I thought was my uncle. But, you know, we’re Filipinos: Everybody’s an uncle. So I thought everything was fine. I got here when I was 12. And then I thought, you know, my grandparents, my mother’s parents, treated me like I was one of their own. And then, four years after I got here, I went to the DMV to get a driver’s permit, and that’s when I realized that the green card that my grandfather had given me was fake. So that’s when the lies kind of started.

And then a year after that, thankfully, for me, I discovered journalism. And the only reason I did it—you know, we didn’t have books at home. Writing wasn’t like a—I come from a lower-middle-class family of, you know, workers, service workers. But writing, for me, was interesting because it meant that my name would be on a piece of paper, you know, like Juan González, New York Daily News. I figured that was a way to just exist. And so, I thought if I could be in the piece of paper, that meant that I’m here, right? So I thought I could just like keep doing that. And that’s what I did for 13 years, ’til I was 30.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, then, in your time in The Washington Post, which I’m sure was covering immigration problems and the undocumented—

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Actually, no, I ran away. I mean, I remember the guilt I felt during the 2005—you know, during the 2005—those rallies that happened, right?

AMY GOODMAN: In 2006, yes.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I mean, I must have been the only Jose anywhere in the Washington, D.C., newsroom, and I wanted to run away as fast as I could.

AMY GOODMAN: Did your employers know you were undocumented?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: No, no, of course not. I mean, I lied. I lied on the forms. And that’s what really makes my case more complicated, because when I outed myself in The New York Times and also in the film, I admitted to that, because I had to, right? I mean, I feel like what’s really lacking in this issue is a sense of intellectual honesty, right? There’s a great documentary called Harvest of Empire, for example, right? I mean, I watched that documentary. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Juan’s film actually just aired on the Capitol Tuesday night.



JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: But, like, how do we have a conversation about immigration and not include that conversation? You know, I mean, there is—and the public—you know, my travels have really shown me that the American public is ready for an honest conversation on this issue, not the same talking points that we hear over and over and over again.

AMY GOODMAN: So what was the response to you outing yourself, both in your workplace—


AMY GOODMAN: —at The Washington Post and also the U.S. government?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Well, you know, I decided actually that—when I outed myself, I basically left all of my jobs. You know, I thought about this pretty carefully. So, I can’t be employed by anybody, but—this is where it gets really interesting—I can actually employ people. So, I have an LLC. That’s why—you know, I made a film, and I hired, I don’t know, 40 people total, probably, to just do the film. So, it’s been really interesting that way, because now I’ve been forced to become an entrepreneur that way.

But the reaction from the journalistic community, in general, has been rather interesting. I feel like somehow they just took away my journalistic—kind of like, “Hey, here, you’re not a journalist anymore. Now you’re this advocate activist thing.” And my question to that is: What do you think am I advocating for? And why is it that when people of color or gay people or women, you know, say something, it’s called having an agenda, and yet, when other journalists say it, it’s called having an analysis? You know, I think that’s really an interesting question.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from your film, Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American. In this scene, Jose Antonio Vargas is speaking on the phone with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: My name is Jose Antonio Vargas. Last summer, I wrote this kind of big essay for The New York Times Magazine, my coming out, basically, as undocumented. And I haven’t heard from anybody. So I’m calling you guys to get some information on kind of what my status is. No, I don’t have an alien number. I mean, yeah, I’m—I mean, I’m undocumented. I don’t have—you know, I don’t—are you planning on deporting me? Why or why—I mean, again, like, are you planning on deporting me? Why or why not? And—OK, so I’ll put that in the email. And then, how do you decide whether to start deportation proceedings against somebody, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jose Antonio Vargas. Take it from there.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Well, actually, that was because—so, I guess I was surprised that no one contacted me. So here I am. I admit to everything. My lawyers were like, “Get ready.” Then nothing happened. And as we all know, a thousand people get deported every day. There’s been two million deportations in almost five years. Here I am admitting to everything. I mean, I was kind of hoping—not hoping, but like, OK, what are they going to do? I was surprised by the silence. And so I contacted the editor of Time magazine, at the time, Rick Stengel, and I said, “I want to write a story about why they haven’t deported me.” So that’s actually that scene from that. That scene is from the film when I called ICE myself and said, you know, “What’s up? I haven’t heard from you.”

And the woman on the other line, we couldn’t—we couldn’t, you know, record her, for legal purposes. And at one point I said to her, “You know, look, I’m on deadline. I need a comment.” And she said, “We can’t comment on your case. No comment.” And I actually think that’s a metaphor, in general, for how the American public thinks of us right now, like, you know, “No comment.” Like, you all know we’re here. You know we go to the same grocery stores and the same church. We go to your schools. We work with you. We drive on the same freeway. So what are you going to do with us? Right? And as you know, that’s what we’re battling right now in Congress. But what is the role of states and cities? I mean, to me, that’s a really important question, which is why here in New York, you know, the municipal ID bill hopefully passes through. Why can’t Andrew Cuomo pass the state DREAM Act? It’s a surprise to any—to everybody. And what can we do, you know, right now, for example, to do drivers’ licenses legislation in the state?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, in terms of the response of the politicians—part of your experiences as a Washington Post reporter was covering some of the Mitt Romney campaign—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and being in—and, of course, Romney staked out a position early on as part of the chorus—

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Self-deportation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The chorus of the self-deportation group. Could you talk about your experiences then?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Well, you know, I actually covered Romney the first time he ran for president in 2008—in 2007 in Iowa, and then I came back four years later, now as an undocumented immigrant holding a sign. I actually crashed a Mitt Romney rally. So that was interesting. It was the first time in my life that I ever like held a sign, because, you know, as a journalist, I was trained to never do that. So it was a very surreal experience, actually, holding that sign. But that—when I crashed that rally, what was so interesting was just, again, you know, the general lack of information that people have on this issue, right? This man was like, “Why don’t you just get in the back of the line?” And I have to tell you, that’s probably the number one—the two number—two things that I always get asked is: Why haven’t you gotten deported? I don’t know; ask the government. Number two: Why don’t you just make yourself legal? Right? Which is such an outrageous question. And in the film, as you know, we actually go through the form and show people, oh, I can’t even get past line two. You know, this is why—people think that we just get on the corner of 23rd and Sixth and, like, get in an office and fill out a form. It doesn’t work like that. That’s why we need reform to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to your film, Documented. In this scene in Cullman, Alabama, you interviews a Republican farmer named Lawrence Calvert.


LAWRENCE CALVERT: I own 32 acres here.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: And are you born and raised here in Alabama?

LAWRENCE CALVERT: Yes, born here and raised in Alabama. I don’t farm on the scale that I did at one time, for the simple reason that I’m getting older. Paco is the nickname of my Latino worker. And it’s a friendship, and he works for—with me also. I’d rather say he works with me than for me.


LAWRENCE CALVERT: If I go to Paco’s house, his three children come hug me just like my grandkids come hug me. That’s one of his little—his little son, the youngest one. But I, for some—I’ve accidentally erased the other. But Latinos are—are scared. If they’re here illegally, they’re scared. If they’re here legally, they’ve got family members that they’re scared for. But the idea that if I’ve got Paco in a vehicle with me, then I’m liable also and I can be arrested, well, that’s telling me who my friend—the state of Alabama is telling me who my friends can be. I’m a conservative, and I’m a hardcore Republican, but I don’t agree with them on this. I think you’ve got an immigration problem, but this is no way of solving it.

AMY GOODMAN: Farmer Lawrence Calvert in the film Documented. As we wrap up, how his views fit into the national picture here and where we’re headed?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: You know, I mean, I hope if every Republican can have a conversation with Lawrence Calvert. I mean, that man speaks to this issue with more nuance and sensitivity than, first of all, most of the Republican leaders in the state of Alabama and some of our own Republican leaders in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: You showed this film at the college of Paul Ryan?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Yeah, Miami University, actually this past Monday. About 200 or so kids showed up, mostly white, mostly conservative. It was wonderful, because I think, for them, you know, they’ve grown up thinking of this issue as another thing. One woman actually said to me afterwards—she just kept shaking her head. She said, “This is not what I thought it was going to be.” And I said, “Well, because it’s not what it is. It’s not what you think it is.” Right? And I think that’s our job. You know, that’s the job for me of culture at Define American, you know, this media and culture campaign that I run. Like, this is our job, is to elevate this issue and take it out of this political realm that we’ve kind of stuck it in.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Jose. And you are now headed around the country as the film opens?

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Yes. We’re going to be in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, all throughout May and June.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll link to your schedule at democracynow.org. Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker, his new film is called Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American. It’s opening tonight here in New York at the Village East Cinema.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll go to Sudan, and we’ll also speak with Mother Jones reporter Nick Baumann about the federal authorities’ threat against a person who refused to collaborate with them. Stay with us.

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