To Jose Antonio Vargas, Miami feels like home.
"I love Miami because it reminds me a lot of Manila," the Filipino-American filmmaker explains. "I don't know why, but it does. There's the weather, there's the beach, and I just like getting lost in Miami... I mean, I can't leave the country, so whenever I'm in Miami I feel like I'm somewhere international yet American at the same time. It's kind of a great feeling."
Though Vargas has a passport from the Philippines, he has no visa. If he ever traveled with it outside the United States, he would be detained. Vargas, a former journalist, has shed his veil of objectivity to fight for civil rights. In 2011, Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine cover story, telling the world how his grandparents, both naturalized U.S. citizens, paid to have him smuggled into the country as a child, leaving his single mother behind in the Philippines. His film Documented, premiering at O Cinema Miami Shores at Miami Theater Center June 7, focuses on the weeks leading up to the bombshell story and the fallout in the years after. Vargas quit journalism and created the pro-immigrant Define American campaign.
Documented's Jose Vargas: The Culture Has Not Yet Shifted on Immigration
Documented: Written and directed by Jose Antonio Vargas. Opens Friday, June 6, at O Cinema Miami Shores at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores; 786-565-FILM or visit o-cinema.org. Tickets cost $11 for general admission, $9.50 for students and seniors, and $7.50 for members.
Vargas has been touring the country virtually nonstop ever since, using his story to make the case that America's 11 million undocumented immigrants deserve better from the government. Now, with the release of Documented, Vargas is poised to take his message to a truly national audience.
"The era of preaching to the choir is over," Vargas says. "No more patting ourselves on the back. We will not win this thing if we do not talk — actually talk — with each other."
Viewers of the film end up feeling as though they have known Vargas for years. Moving from his ramshackle childhood home in the Philippines to the halls of Congress, where Vargas delivers a Hollywood-caliber speech to the Senate Judiciary Committee about what it means to be an American, the film is an emotional journey that provokes both tears and laughter. Vargas is the hero, the Pulitzer-winning reporter who fights for civil rights, but mostly he comes across as human. He's the 12-year-old kid who loves The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the 30-something adult who can't bring himself to friend his estranged mother on Facebook. It seems like he keeps no secrets.
"That's probably what I was most scared of going into all this," Vargas says later, away from the crowd. "The word 'humility' comes to mind. How do I do this with as much humility as possible?"
Documented was made with audiences across the country in mind, but in Miami, home to one of the largest immigrant populations in the nation, it has a special resonance. Miami native Gaby Pacheco, the director of the Bridge Project, is one of the many immigration activists Vargas met while on his tour. He calls her one of his dearest friends.
"I'm really happy and proud that she's in the film," he says. "Too often history is written, and women — women of color — get left out. I'm proud to say that in this film, the very first person you see interviewed is Gaby Pacheco."
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With immigration reform stalled at the federal level, Vargas and other advocates are pushing state and local initiatives as stopgaps. In Florida, undocumented immigrants can pay in-state tuition and most recently were given permission to practice law. However, last year, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants the privilege of having a driver's license.
"I think in many ways immigrant rights is going by the way of LGBT rights. It's happening state by state by state. So Florida, for example, after many years, finally passed in-state tuition for undocumented students [May 1]. I can't wait to go to Miami and talk about driver's licenses. While we wait for Washington, D.C., to get it together and actually pass reform, what's stopping Florida from giving licenses to undocumented drivers? I mean, we all know we're driving. And many people getting deported are being deported because they're getting caught... So while we wait for something to happen in D.C., why can't we just have driver's licenses?"
Though Vargas and his fellow undocumented Americans still face plenty of cultural roadblocks, he hopes his film will make some kind of a difference. "We have to change the culture before we can even focus on the political football that is happening when it comes to this issue," Vargas says. "That's why I think films are important; that's why culture and art is important. We need more of these stories. This is only one story."
Filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas will appear in person at the screenings Friday, June 6, and Saturday, June 7.