Jose Antonio Vargas’ New Film Makes the Undocumented ‘Documented’

The former Washington Post journalist directs a deeply personal documentary

Aug. 6,2013— -- Jose Antonio Vargas grew up in the United States, but he doesn’t have the proper immigration papers to live here. He grew up wanting to see his name in newspapers, because he thought it would validate his presence in the U.S. With his latest documentary, Vargas has more than proven his worthiness to be here.

Varga’s “Documented” is a tremendously personal film. The Pulitzer-winning journalist has been extremely open about his personal life since coming out as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times magazine essay, but he offers an even more intimate window on his life -- and family’s -- in this documentary, his second.

Directed by Vargas himself, the documentary centers around his experience as he prepared to come out in the Times. He began shooting the documentary two months before the essay was published.

We follow Vargas around the country as he speaks at college campuses and visits conservative towns and rallies where undocumented immigrants are not welcomed. In scene after scene we see him patiently and respectfully reminding people that “there is no line” for him to join to acquire citizenship. These scenes deftly position immigration as the most controversial and least understood political issue in the nation.

In one scene, Vargas visits a Mitt Romney 2011 campaign stop in Iowa and engages the Republican presidential candidate’s supporters.

“But sir, but sir, there’s no line,” Vargas tells a couple who insists he contact a senator to help with his immigration status. “I was brought here when I was 12. I didn’t know I didn’t have papers since I was 16; my grandparents, who were American citizens, didn’t tell me. So I been here — I been paying taxes since I was 18, I just want to be able to get legal, to get in the back of the line somewhere.”

The exchange continues with the couple repeatedly asking Vargas if he’s contacted an elected official for help.

The film also includes some basic explainers: At one point in the film, Vargas walks viewers through an I-9, the immigration verification form new employees fill out when starting a new job. Vargas forces viewers who are in this country legally to consider the questions they often overlook, and he unravels the effects of working in this country without papers.

Vargas and his team successfully captured a story about a complex issue in a way that’s engaging and easy to follow. He juxtaposes public policies that keep his family split between the U.S. and the Philippines.

The film will be meaningful for people who see their experience on film and it will undoubtedly play well as a conversation starter for the less informed.