Jose Antonio Vargas' life 'Documented'

National immigration activist, MVHS graduate screens his new documentary

Last night's presentation of Jose Antonio Vargas' new film was not the first, but it may have been the most significant for the journalist and immigrant rights advocate who calls Mountain View home.

Unlike previous screenings, this showing of "Documented" was held at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts -- in the heart of the city where Vargas grew up, fell in love with journalism and discovered he had been smuggled into the United States illegally. It's the place where he found the strength and the support network to beat the odds.

"Everything that I am is indebted to this community," he told the near-capacity crowd during a brief introduction to the documentary on Monday, Jan. 27.

After the presentation, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist took time to personally thank several members of the audience for their role in helping him on his journey. He had kind words for his old choir teacher and debate coach from Mountain View High School, his grandmother and especially the group of high school district administrators and local benefactors who made him the first recipient of a scholarship through the Mountain View-Los Altos Community Scholars program.

The screening was organized as a fundraiser for the Community Scholars. Since sending Vargas to San Francisco State University in 2000, the program has provided scholarships for more than 225 local students. The program is currently sponsoring 75 graduates from the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District -- the majority of them first-generation college students.

The organization is 100-percent volunteer-run. All of the proceeds from Monday's event will go directly toward student scholarships, a representative said.

"Documented" follows Vargas from the moment he decides to "come out" about his status as an "American without papers" in an essay in the New York Times Magazine. The cameras trail him as he gives speeches, talks to supporters and opponents of immigration reform, and as he grows to become one of the most recognizable faces of the immigration reform debate.

All the while, the film also tells Vargas' back story: how at age 12 he was sneaked into America by his grandfather in 1993, how he discovered at the age of 16 that his Green Card was fake when he attempted to apply for a driver's license, how he found allies along the way that helped him pursue his goals of a higher education and a career in journalism, and how he became estranged from his mother -- who has remained in the Philippines and has not been in the same room with her son for more than two decades.

After the credits, Vargas returned to the stage and told the audience that the film they just watched was not the film he originally set out to make. He did not intend to make a film about his personal life and struggles. He hadn't intended to include his family in the documentary at all, he said.

But, he went on, "In some ways, this is the film I needed to make." Later, he added, "My goal from the beginning was to show what a broken immigration system does. And this is what it does."

Vargas said he lives every day unsure of what is coming next. He has wondered if he will be deported. He has worried that the people who have helped him along the way -- the people who have lied for him -- will get into trouble.

By documenting his personal struggle, Vargas said he hoped he could get people on opposite sides of this debate talking to each other in a meaningful way -- something he says is all too rare these days, thanks in large part to a media that highlights polemic arguments rather than seeking out nuanced discourse. "We're not talking to each other," he told the crowd after the film screened. "We're talking at each other."

That needs to change, Vargas said, and he thinks it can. But first, people on both sides of the debate need to be willing to listen to one another, just like he listened to a rather drunk man he encountered in Birmingham.

The exchange, captured on film in "Documented," begins with the man, who remains unidentified, interrupting an interview between Vargas and an immigration rights activist. The man tells Vargas' interviewee to "shut up," before proceeding to say that all illegal immigrants need to leave the country.

Instead of stopping the cameras and moving away from the man, who seems a bit menacing, Vargas engages him. Without condescending, Vargas tells the man that he had no choice when his mother put him in a cab and sent him off to the airport to fly to America. He explains that there is no real process for the 11 million estimated undocumented men and women living in the U.S. to start working toward citizenship.

Perhaps most importantly, Vargas lets the man speak. And though clearly intoxicated, the man articulates a point that Vargas said he sympathizes with: that undocumented workers undercut citizen construction contractors when they are willing to work for far cheaper wages.

"That's a perfectly valid point, and we need to recognize that," Vargas told the audience -- the same audience who had mostly chortled at the drunken man with the southern drawl during screening.

At a pre-screening event held at the home of Community Scholars supporter Nancy Nesmith in Los Altos, Vargas said he has plans to hold an event hosted by a chapter of the Tea Party. A murmur rippled through the small crowd.

One woman wondered aloud at how he would be able to talk to a group that would likely be hostile to his views.

But Vargas said he was not worried. In fact, he seemed to relish the idea of the Tea Party event. "Journalism taught me empathy," he said, explaining that it has helped him see past the differences he has with people and instead try to understand why someone feels a certain way.

He said he believes that being able to have real conversations with the opposition is the only way any true compromise will ever be reached.


Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 28, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Great educational charity organization to support. Especially - I didn't know they had 0% administrative overhead. Vargas into the Tea Party? Wow - I always admired "speaking truth to power." But then - maybe the GOP Speaker of the US House of Representatives, has shown that that particular part of the 'party' has lost it's power.
-on the side - cold milk tea? The current movie 'Saving Mr. Banks' is a splendid place to think about kids, families, growing up in adversity and another story of artistic inspirations.

Posted by kathy, a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jan 28, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Very impressive, sorry I missed the event. I am going to make a donation to Community Scholars right now. Web Link

Posted by hmm, a resident of St. Francis Acres
on Jan 28, 2014 at 3:01 pm

"Vargas said he lives every day unsure of what is coming next. He has wondered if he will be deported. He has worried that the people who have helped him along the way -- the people who have lied for him -- will get into trouble."

This is nothing but a mockery of our immigration system that is in place. All the illegals need to go back where they came from. Our immigration system is the kindest in the world, so they need to go back and come in the correct way.

Posted by WHy?, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 28, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Why does the citizenry, of United States, encourage the immigrants to set immigration policy? Isn't that the purview of the government?

I actually don't have an opinion on what is right or wrong on the issue.

Posted by pepperfox, a resident of Gemello
on Jan 28, 2014 at 4:11 pm

[Post removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]

Posted by Le Dude, a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jan 29, 2014 at 6:02 am

Get a hair cut!

Posted by Ivan Taskov, a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2014 at 9:27 am

I am legal immigrant that came here 13 years ago. It took me 7 years and fortune of money to follow the USA laws. And I will be very happy if receive even half of the help that Mr. Vargas (the illegal immigrant) receive.
The message is do not follow the law and you will be rewarded? Am I right?

Posted by Steve, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 29, 2014 at 10:57 am

"My goal from the beginning was to show what a broken immigration system does"

But a broken immigration system did not do this. His parents did. And granting citizenship to children smuggled into the country would encourage more parents to do it. Not only does this skirt the immigration laws, it encourages separating young children from their parents.

If Mr. Vargas wanted/wants to become a US citizen, he should have returned to the Philippines and applied for a visa.

"Vargas said he lives every day unsure of what is coming next. He has wondered if he will be deported"

All he needs to do is return to the Philippines and apply for a visa.

"He explains that there is no real process for the 11 million estimated undocumented men and women living in the U.S. to start working toward citizenship."

Yes, there is. Return to their home country and apply for a visa.

And honestly, is a conversation between a drunken vagrant and someone who has studied immigration issues a useful dialog? Especially when Vargas has no response to the drunken man's assertion on the impact on low-skilled employment.

The reason there are so many undocumented workers is not because it's difficult to become documented (H2-A), but because they like it that way - neither they nor their employer pay taxes, insurance or social security.

Posted by Breaking the law, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 29, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Poster child for breaking the law. Maybe we all should not worry if something is illegal or not and just do as we wish.

Posted by Wondering, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 29, 2014 at 2:03 pm

The comments that he should 'go home' are missing the point. He built his life here. Mountain View is his home. The immigration policies are not addressing the realities of the present and they do need reform.

It was particularly sad that when the Federal government allowed other children of immigrants a path to citizenship, he was one year older than the cut off.

This man is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. He adds great value to our community and our country. We benefit by his presence.

Posted by @wondering, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 29, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Not sure what you don't understand about what illegal means?

There is nothing wrong with our immigration system!! It's the best in the world.

What is wrong, is the Feds not upholding the laws.

Posted by Steve, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 30, 2014 at 10:45 am

"The comments that he should 'go home' are missing the point. He built his life here."

I understand that. And it will be difficult for him. But his parents are to blame for that. He can apply for a visa to the USA and return legally. If he had done that when he first realized he was here illegally, he would have his green card by now.

Posted by Sophiemutterfan, a resident of The Crossings
on Feb 2, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Oh I get that, if you break the law and cried a bit and you will get rewarded. This article is encouraging criminal. Thanks MV. Voice

Posted by Bummer, a resident of another community
on Feb 16, 2014 at 1:27 pm

You are Filipino, why don't you acknowledge that fact. You can argue all you want but that fact will always remain. Perhaps one day if you ever get American citizenship through naturalization, you can start calling yourself American.

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