June 20, 2013 -- One of immigration reform's most prominent activists, Jose Antonio Vargas directed a new film about how his undocumented status has kept him from seeing his family in the Philippines for nearly 20 years.
The film, entitled "Documented," will premiere on June 20 as the centerpiece of the American Film Institute's documentary festival in Washington, D.C.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who "came out" as undocumented two years ago in a piece in the New York Times, was brought to the U.S. at a young age by relatives and didn't discover he was in the country illegally until he was a teenager.
If he leaves the U.S., Vargas will likely not be permitted to re-enter for many years under current immigration law, and his own mother, Emilie Salinas, has been unable to obtain a visa to visit the U.S. The result: now 32 years old, Vargas has not seen his mother since he was 12.
"It's not like she's in France, and could get on a plane and be here in a few hours. If you're from a country like the Philippines or India it's much different," Vargas said, in reference to the long wait times for visa applicants from certain countries.
His own story illustrates the struggle that many families who have been split up by immigration laws are undergoing in America, he says. Every month, Vargas sends remittances back to his family in the Philippines to help his mother and half-sister, as well as his half-brother, who he has never met.
"They know me only through YouTube videos and Facebook," said Vargas.
Two years ago, Vargas started filming his documentary. During that span, he founded Define American, an organization to "elevate" dialogue around immigration.
Although he has led a very public fight for immigration reform, Vargas has never talked much about his relationship with his own family.
"Publicly, I try to be put together, I want to come across as strong, and as if I can talk to anybody," Vargas said.
"There isn't anybody in this country that I would not talk to about immigration... but me talking about my mom is the hard stuff and dealing with how I have to have a life without her, it isn't easy."
Vargas dedicated the film to his mother, who he calls "Mama" and his production company "Apo," which means "grandchild" in Tagalog, was named in honor of his grandparents who raised him in the U.S.
For the filming of "Documented," Vargas sent a small crew to the Philippines to speak with his mother, including young filmmaker Ann Lupo who was a recent graduate of NYU film school. As the director of the film, editing the footage of his own mother has been one of the hardest parts for the immigration advocate.
"I have seen my mother more on screen in the editing process than I have in the last 20 years," Vargas said. "It's been very intense and the hardest story we tell is the story about ourselves."
Cristina Costantini is a writer for Fusion, a Univision-ABC News joint venture