Between the summers of 2000 and 2003, a college student named Jose Antonio Vargas worked at the San Francisco Chronicle as an editorial assistant. Chronicle management told Vargas he could never make an immediate leap to full-time editorial staffer. Never.
Vargas would disprove them. Chronicle management, in fact, promoted Vargas to full-time reporter in 2003, but along the way they asked him to fill out forms that verified his status as an American citizen. Vargas lied. He said he was in the United States legally. He presented identification that proved it. Yet the ID was a forgery, but he still signed his name under penalty of perjury.
Vargas told no one at the paper about his deception. Not Chronicle management, and not any colleagues – which included me. I was a full-time reporter then at the Chronicle. I was friendly with Vargas. One day in the newsroom he walked by my desk and said that the kinds of stories I was doing – stories about Arab and Muslim Americans; stories about social issues and cultural trends – were the kinds of stories he admired. Lots of people admired Vargas for being ambitious and wanting to report on articles that mattered.
Fast forward to 2014. Vargas has become a national figure in the debate over immigration reform – a polarizing activist who is doing everything he can to change people’s perception about an issue that, as debated in Congress and in state governments from Sacramento to Tallahassee, has become one of the most contentious in American politics. Vargas’ new documentary, which details his boyhood immigration to the United States from the Philippines and his life since then, humanizes his story the stories of others who entered the United States as children without legal documentation.
Vargas tells me he felt incredible guilt as he worked at the Chronicle under false pretense.
“I almost wanted to tell (the editor) who got me the job,” he says.
Vargas left the Chronicle in 2004 for the Washington Post, where he shared in a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people. He joined the Huffington Post in 2009, and then wrote an exclusive profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker – the culmination of a meteoric rise in mainstream journalism that saw Vargas interviewed regularly on cable news shows. He was still only 29 years old and his career was really just getting started.
Except that Vargas also lied about his immigration status to every other employer, telling only a senior editorial staffer at the Washington Post, who kept Vargas’ admission a secret. Vargas would out himself in a 4,000-word New York Times Magazine cover story in 2011.
His mother, he wrote in the piece, had sent him to the United States on an airplane to live with her parents in Mountain View. Vargas, who flew from Manilla, had been all of 12 years old. He assumed he was flying to the U.S. with everything in order. Neither his mother nor his grandparents told him the truth.
In Documented, he says he first realized his status when he tried, as a teenager, to get a driver’s license with the Department of Motor Vehicles, using what he thought was a valid green card. A DMV official told Vargas his green card was a fake. Vargas’ grandfather admonished him for putting himself at legal risk. It was at the Chronicle that Vargas first took on the lies himself.
"I was duped," Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein wrote just hours after Vargas’ New York Times essay appeared online. “I once hired an illegal immigrant to be a reporter for the Chronicle.”
Of the scene in Documented where he admits to deceiving the Chronicle by falsifying a form, Vargas tells me: “I didn’t even show it to my lawyers, because I knew for them, it would be like, ‘Take that out of the film.’ “ Adds Vargas: “What is the point of my coming out and trying to have an honest conversation about immigration reform if I’m not honest about my own culpability? I lied to my employers. I lied to my friends. I lied to my own family members. And guess what? I had to lie to myself.”
After Vargas’ New York Times essay appeared in 2011, he wrote a cover story for TIME magazine, for which he appeared on the cover, along with other young Americans who were raised in the United States but don’t have legal papers to be here. Like Vargas, they think of themselves as proud Americans but aren’t legally entitled to be here (though that would change if Congress ever passes the Dream Act.)
Because of his success as a journalist, and his continuing high profile, Vargas is often the first undocumented American that people meet in person. Vargas is speaking at many places where Documented is screening, including those being held at San Francisco's Roxie Theater on Friday night. He has spoke in rural parts of the United States to “preach beyond the choir.”
For too many people (including journalists), immigration reform is an academic exercise -- an issue they can mull over in their head but never have to confront personally. One of the more moving scenes in Documented comes when Vargas is in the American south and interviewing someone in public – only to be interrupted by a different man who seems drunk and racist. The drunkard thinks all undocumented Americans should be deported. “You need to get your ass on,” he says. But then Vargas tells the drunkard about paying taxes for most of his life, and about his Pulitzer Prize-winning career. The man suddenly relents.
In the documentary, Vargas also films himself at a Mitt Romney campaign rally during the 2012 presidential campaign. Vargas is holding a large sign that says: “I am an American w/o papers.” Romney tells the assembled that all undocumented Americans should be forced to leave the country.
By becoming an activist on the issue of immigration, Vargas leaves behind the idea of “objective journalism,” which he’s happy to do, he says. Vargas has established an organization, Define American, that has sought to shift the terms of the debate over language like “illegal immigrant.” He prefers the term “undocumented immigrant.” The film goes in-depth into Vargas’ difficult relationship with his mother, who has stayed behind in the Philippines. For years, Vargas refused to open her letters. Vargas plans to move back to the Bay Area from New York by the end of this year, then split his time between here and Los Angeles. He could still be deported at any time, he says.
“I’m still undocumented,” Vargas tells me. “In theory,” he says, U.S. authorities could go after him at any time. In Documented, he calls the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service and asks about his case.
“That was an interesting scene," he says. "At one point, I said, ‘I’m on deadline. I need a comment.’ And the woman on the line said, ‘We can’t comment on your case. No comment.’ I started thinking, ‘Isn’t that a metaphor for how the American public in general thinks of us? They all know we’re here. You know the economy would collapse without us. And you know that we’re completely integrated into all areas of American society.”
Jose Antonio Vargas’ documentary, Documented, opens Friday, May 16, at the Roxie in San Francisco, and at other Bay Area theaters. Vargas will appear in person for the Roxie’s 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. screenings on Friday, May 16.