‘Documented’ Filmmaker Asks, ‘How Do You Define ‘American?” [INTERVIEW]

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When Jose Antonio Vargas was a kid, he moved from the Philippines to America to live with his grandparents. It wasn’t until some years later, after embracing America and its culture, he learned that he was undocumented.

Jose went on to have a successful career in journalism (like, Pulitzer Prize successful), and then he decided to “out” himself as undocumented. Since then he’s continued to talk about immigration in America and how, even though he’s lived here most of his life, there isn’t a way set up for him to get his papers. All this has led to his nonprofit Define American and his documentary, “Documented.” The doc will be hitting theaters in May and June and will also be playing on CNN this summer. Before you catch it on the big screen or on CNN, check out our interview with Jose.


ACT: A lot of media seems to pay attention to the fact that you defy the stereotype of who is undocumented in America, but it seems that stereotyping is part of the problem to begin with. Can you clear up some common misunderstandings about undocumented people, and the stereotypes they face?

JOSE: After traveling around the country—I’ve visited at least 42 states and done about 200 events in less than three years—I can confidently say that immigration is the most controversial yet least understood issue in America. There are so many stereotypes, wrapped in ignorance and dipped in misinformation and misunderstanding. That this is a Latino/Mexican issue. (Countless times I’ve heard people say “illegal” and “Mexican” interchangeably. Interchangeably.) That “illegal” people like me are leeches to society, a drain to social welfare. (Undocumented workers pay billions in taxes and Social Security.) That “illegal” people like me don’t love this country. On the contrary. Undocumented immigrants, like immigrants before us, come to America for a better life and to contribute to this country: economically and culturally. I could go on and on. This is why humanizing this issue is paramount.

+ Watch Documented Official Trailer

ACT: What is the state of immigration now, and what would your ideal reforms be?

JOSE: Immigration reform is at the mercy of what’s proven to be the most dysfunctional Congress in recent memory. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has deported nearly 2 million immigrants in 5 years—a record.

Most immediately, we must stop needless deportations and breaking families apart. And we must find a way to give 11 million people, many of us Americans in all but papers, a fair and humane process to adjust our immigration status.

ACT: What do you want to accomplish with your documentary?

JOSE: The documentary is a project of Define American, the nonprofit media and culture campaign that I founded in 2011 when I outed myself as undocumented. To our Define American, politics is culture—we must change the culture in which we talk about immigrants. To that end, the goal of the film is to humanize a very political issue. At its core, the film is about a mother and son. That’s because immigration, at bottom, is about families.

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ACT: In the documentary, you show some people using really hateful rhetoric against people who are undocumented. If someone witnesses people talking like that, how do you recommend they respond?

JOSE: As a gay, undocumented Filipino American, I’ve grown up being called names. I’m used to hateful, ignorant rhetoric, and I’ve learned to respond to it with as much empathy as I can. Like, why is that person saying that? What is the root of that anger, that ignorance? I try to respond with as much empathy as I can.

Truthfully, what you choose to call me says a lot more about you than it does about me.

ACT: How can people get involved with Define American?

JOSE: By going to DefineAmerican.com and taking the pledge—which is a new symbol for the immigrant rights movement. [Editor's Note: the pledge is to support immigration fairness.] More than ever, we need allies from all racial and ethnic backgrounds to support their undocumented neighbors, friends, classmates and co-workers.

ACT: How do you define American?

JOSE: I define American as anyone who calls this country their home. This is where I grew up; this is where I became who I am.

ACT: What are you working on next?

JOSE: A very exciting film project. I cannot say too much yet, but in my mind it’s a natural follow up to “Documented.” I feel like everything I do artistically will seek to answer the question I posed almost three years ago: how do you define American? That’s a very broad but specific canvas to work with.

Photos: (Documented)

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