Sunday, May 04, 2014

"How do you define American?" Jose Antonio Vargas -- speaking for many other undocumented Americans -- asks us to think about it


"Not Legal, Not Leaving"

A year after coming out about my undocumented status in the New York Times Magazine, I wrote an essay for TIME magazine—this time, addressing provocative questions that everyday Americans around the country, from Alabama to Arizona, have asked me.

"Why haven’t you gotten deported?"

That’s usually the first thing people ask me when they learn I’m an undocumented immigrant or, put more rudely, an “illegal.” Some ask it with anger or frustration, others with genuine bafflement. At a restaurant in Birmingham, not far from the University of Alabama, an inebriated young white man challenged me: “You got your papers?” I told him I didn’t. “Well, you should get your ass home, then.” In California, a middle-aged white woman threw up her arms and wanted to know: “Why hasn’t Obama dealt with you?” At least once a day, I get that question, or a variation of it, via e-mail, tweet or Facebook message. Why, indeed, am I still here?

Full story here.
-- from the home page of Jose Antonio Vargas's website

by Ken

For the possible benefit of anyone who might have been able to take advantage of the information this weekend I should have gotten this done before the weekend, because Friday Jose Antonio Vargas's remarkable film Documented began a weeklong run at NYC's Village East Cinema (Second Avenue at 12th Street). I apologize, but I only found out about it Friday, and time has been tough since then. This coming Friday, May 9, it begins a theatrical run in Los Angeles at the Landmark Regent. It's going to be shown sometime thereafter -- the closest date I could find was "this summer" -- by CNN. CNN Films acquired distribution rights in November.

There's still at least one New York screening left at which Jose is scheduled to appear for a panel discussion: tomorrow's at 7:30. (Advance tickets can be bought here.) And I imagine similar events will be included during the Los Angeles run.

When the Museum of the Moving Image recently announced a screening of Documented a couple of weeks ago at which filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas, among others engaged in the issue, would be present, I recognized the name immediately and was surprised how much I remembered of the story he had told in the New York Times Magazine in June 2011. (Well, no, I didn't remember the date. I've filled that in here for the sake of informativeness.)


Told one way, Jose's is a classic, great American story: A young man who came to the U.S. from the Philippines at 12 and, with a combination of talent, determination, and help from people who admired his talent and determination, turned himself into a reporter, made his way to the Washington Post, and at a bewilderingly young age was part of a Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize.

Of course there's a vast amount of detail omitted from this bare-bones sketch, but there's just one teeny detail that's kind of important -- no, crucial. In fact it overrides all the rest. But in fairness it's a teeny deteail that Antonio himself didn't know until he was 16: that the green card with which his grandparents, who had already been living in the U.S., equipped him, was fake. He learned this when he presented it as ID when, in the most traditionally American 16-year-old (check the age in your state) ambition imaginable, he tried to apply for a driver's license. The person he showed it to took one look at it and broke the news to him.

His grandfather was furious that he had been so foolish as to show the fake green card to anybody. And he told Jose some more of his story (though still not quite all of it, as we'll see shortly): that he was not, as he had been led to assume, a documented immigrant. From that point, as all those other things I sketched earlier were happening in Jose's life, overriding them was this fateful secret: that he was an undocumented alien.

In Documented he recalls the first time he actively lied about his status, as opposed to saying untrue things that he believed to be true, or talking around dangerous questions. After that the lying became more familiar but perhaps not that much easier. Oh, along the way he shared the secret with a few people, who responded sympathetically and courageously, keeping his secret. But there was no getting around the secret.

Until finally, in June 2011 he came clean in the New York Times Magazine. But I couldn't recall anything after the Times Magazine piece. It turns out I'd missed a year-later follow-up in Time, and when the Time editors decided to put the story on the cover, he had the idea of sharing the cover with other undocumented Americans. (On Jose's website there's a slide show on the making of the Time cover.)

Jose Antonio Vargas (born February 3, 1981) is a journalist, filmmaker, and immigration activist. Born in the Philippines and raised in the United States from the age of 12, he was part of The Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2008 for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings online and in print. Vargas has also worked for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Daily News, and The Huffington Post.

In a June 2011 essay in The New York Times Magazine, Vargas revealed his status as an "undocumented immigrant" in an effort to promote dialogue about the immigration system in the US. It was also a way to advocate for the DREAM Act, which would help children in similar circumstances have a path to citizenship. A year later, a day after the publication of his Time cover story about his continued uncertainty regarding his status, the Obama administration announced its halt to the deportation of undocumented immigrants under age 30 eligible for the DREAM Act; Vargas himself does not qualify due to his age.

Vargas is the founder of "Define American", a non-profit organization intended to open up dialogue about the criteria people use to determine who is an American. About himself he says, "I am an American. I just don't have the right papers."
-- the opening of Jose's Wikipedia entry
(links and footnotes onsite)


I saw Documented at the Museum of the Moving Image screening (where it was introduced by the new New York City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito), and one of the most powerful things about the experience was seeing Jose's reaction. Obviously he has been working on the film for years now, and once it was substantially edited he began showing it to audiences, which he has continued to do as he has continued editing the film. At the museum here, watching it in its present state with the large audience left him barely able to speak for a while.

Jose describes Documented as not the film he set out to make but the film he had to make. One of the subjects that came to the fore is his relaltionship with his mother, whom he hasn't seen since he left the Philippines when he was 12, but more recently hadn't had any real communication with. In his early years living with his grandparents in small-town California, thinking that his mother would be following as soon as the paperwork could be managed, he remained in fairly close contact. But eventually he came to understand that there was little to no chance of her emigrating for legal reasons (if I'm remembering correctly, she lied on a visa application, presumalby relating to Jose's legal status), and of course he learned that he had been spirited into the U.S.

I don't remember that there was much about Jose's mother in his Times Magazine piece. As the story is pieced together in Documented, she was a beautiful and naive young woman who quickly found herself pregnant and then married, and soon thereafter abandoned with an infant son, scrounging as best she could to support him. For those 12 years they seem to have been inseparably close.

Jose's mother had, it seems, no role in arranging his emigration. She learned about it at almost the same time it happened. It was arranged by her father, then already living in the U.S., who no doubt thought he was doing what was best for his grandson. (Jose's grandfather has died, but we do meet his grandmother in the film.) Jose's mother learned of his scheduled departure the morning it was to happen.

All of which seems to have led him to feel that his mother had abandoned him, and he broke off communication. Painfully, that sense of abandonment seemed to twist his memory of his flight from Manila to the recollection that his mother didn't even come to the airport. She assures him she did. For her, of course, it was to see her only child taken away from her, perhaps never to be seen again.

More recently they have reestsablished contact electronically, and have seen each other via Skype. In Jose's undocumented status, of course, there has never been any question of his returning to the Philippines to see her, because he has had no reason to believe he would be allowed back in the country where, now, nearly two-thirds of his life has been. He now has a younger half-brother and -sister, and with them too he has established the start of an electronic relationship. He was, however, able to send a hardy little camera crew back home to enable us to meet his family.


I realize I haven't said much about the actual issue of undocumented Americans. But I hope my use of that phrase "undocumented Americans" says something. You wouldn't think that a nation of immigrants would be so obtuse about the subject of immigration, but then, maybe it takes a nation of immigrants to be so obtuse. There is an image of the undocumented taking away jobs from real Americans, and of the undocumented living high off the hog on rich U.S. benefits.

But of course the undocumented mostly fill low-level crap jobs that real Americans don't want to do -- although this argument has perhaps become less persuasive as more and more of us real Americans are doing low-level crap jobs that we don't want to do. (Or are the immigration-bashers thinking that they could have become Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists if they'd-a felt like it?) As for government benefits, the undocumented get hardly any, whereas they pay a staggering amount in taxes -- some $15 billion annually just in Social Security taxes, of which they collect maybe $1 billion, as Adam Davidson reported iIn a February 2013 Times Magazine piece, "Do Illegal Immigrants Actually Hurt the U.S. Economy?."

After meeting an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, Pedro Chan, who does the lowest-level construction gruntwork in Brooklyn (earning "up to $25,000 a year, which is considerably less than the average entry wage for New York City's 100,000 or so documented construction wqorkers"), Davidson writes:
Illegal immigration does have some undeniably negative economic effects. Similarly skilled native-born workers are faced with a choice of either accepting lower pay or not working in the field at all. Labor economists have concluded that undocumented workers have lowered the wages of U.S. adults without a high-school diploma — 25 million of them — by anywhere between 0.4 to 7.4 percent.

The impact on everyone else, though, is surprisingly positive. Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis, has written a series of influential papers comparing the labor markets in states with high immigration levels to those with low ones. He concluded that undocumented workers do not compete with skilled laborers — instead, they complement them. Economies, as Adam Smith argued in “Wealth of Nations,” work best when workers become specialized and divide up tasks among themselves. Pedro Chan’s ability to take care of routine tasks on a work site allows carpenters and electricians to focus on what they do best. In states with more undocumented immigrants, Peri said, skilled workers made more money and worked more hours; the economy’s productivity grew. From 1990 to 2007, undocumented workers increased legal workers’ pay in complementary jobs by up to 10 percent.
As to the overall economics of the undocumented:
Earlier that day, I was reminded of another seldom-discussed fact about immigrant life in the United States. Immigrants spend most of the money they make. Chan had broken down his monthly expenses: $400 a month in rent, another $30 or so for gas, electric and Internet. He sends some money home and tries to save a few thousand a year in his Citibank account, but he ends up spending more than $10,000 annually. That includes the $1,400 or so he pays the I.R.S. so that he can have a taxpayer I.D. number, which allows him to have a credit score so that he can rent an apartment or lease a car.

There are many ways to debate immigration, but when it comes to economics, there isn’t much of a debate at all. Nearly all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants — those here legally or not — benefit the overall economy. “That is not controversial,” Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told me. Shierholz also said that “there is a consensus that, on average, the incomes of families in this country are increased by a small, but clearly positive amount, because of immigration.”


In May, Jose Antonio Vargas explained for CNN "Why I made Documented":
Every day, an estimated 1,100 immigrants are deported. The U.S. government has deported nearly 2 million immigrants in five years -- a record.

But not me.

I am privileged to still be in America, my home, and privileged to put "Documented" on the screen.

To me, politics is culture. I became a journalist, and later a filmmaker, to get to know my new country and my volatile place in it as a gay, undocumented Filipino-American. As a newcomer to America who learned to "speak American" by watching movies, I firmly believe that to change the politics of immigration and citizenship, we must change culture -- the way we portray undocumented people like me and our role in society.

That's why I felt compelled to take charge of my own narrative and write, produce and direct "Documented."

This film, to me, is as much an artistic statement as it is a political one: I am not the "illegal" you think I am, and immigration is not what you think it is.

After publicly outing myself as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times Magazine in June 2011, I had planned to make a film about undocumented youth who call themselves "DREAMers," named after a long¬stalled congressional bill called the DREAM Act.

I had written my story, I thought -- I was done. In my mind it was time to find and document other stories. But after nearly a year of shooting, wherein my story joined the fold, I was forced to ask harder questions of myself.

How could I possibly tell my story and not include my mother? And if I were to include my mother, who lives in the Philippines, how do I direct the shoot if I cannot leave the United States? (If I leave, there's no guarantee that I would be allowed back. My mother has been denied a tourist visa and awaits a family visa to come to the United States.)

And, the toughest question of all: Can I trust myself to tell my own story? Making this film became more painful, more confrontational, and wholly personal. Mama put me on a plane to America at age 12 and I have not seen her in person since. While editing the film, I saw more of her than I have in the past 20 years.

This is not the film I set out to make, but it is the film I needed to make. A broken immigration system means broken families and broken lives.

I did not realize how broken I was until I saw how broken Mama was. In the process of documenting myself, I ended up documenting Mama -- and the sacrifices of parents who make America what it is, then and now.

And in telling my own specific story that underscores a universal truth, I hope it incites others to tell their stories, too.

At the very least, I want viewers to ask the question I posed as I filmed and traveled our country from California, Iowa to Alabama: How do you define American?
For more about the film and realted activities, you can check the "Define American" website.

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