Life as an Undocumented Immigrant
Twenty-one years ago, his mother sent him to America. He hasn’t seen her since. Documented tells the story of living in a country that doesn’t recognize you as one of its own.
“Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.”
—Jeb Bush, April 6, 2014
One August morning in 1993, a mother in the Philippines put her 12-year-old son on a plane to the United States, where she said that Disneyland, gallons of chocolate ice cream, and bigger opportunities awaited him. It was an act of love. It was commitment to her family.
I was that son.
I have not seen Mama in person since. She’s been denied a tourist visa to visit America and waits in a line stretching 16 years for legal access. I, on the other hand, cannot leave the country where I built a life for myself because there’s no guarantee I’ll be allowed to return. Of all possible places, Mama and I meet on film, in Documented, a documentary that I wrote and directed. Originally, the film was supposed to be about the decade-old DREAM Act, with me documenting stories of other undocumented youth known as DREAMers. But I ended up documenting Mama’s dream—why she gave me up to give me a better life. We had been separated for 18 years when I started filming in March 2011. The estrangement, as emotional as it is physical, will be 21 years old in August.
I do not have the words to describe the cost of that separation. Perhaps only film, literal as it is, can show it in all its blunt and raw complexity. Documented opens in New York City on May 2 and Los Angeles and Phoenix on May 9 before hitting cities across the U.S., including Washington, D.C., where I hope congressional members, staffers, and politicos see it. The film represents one story— only one journey— but its specificity, I hope, can speak to the universality of what it’s like to live in a country that does not recognize you as one of its own. An estimated 1,100 immigrants are deported every day. The Obama administration, aided by a dysfunctional Congress, has deported nearly 2 million immigrants in five years—a record. I am privileged to still be in America, my home, and privileged to put Documented on the screen.
Documented is dedicated to our country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of us Americans in all but pieces of paper. I was especially inspired by undocumented youth leaders from groups such as United We Dream, The Bridge Project, DRM Action Coalition, and Dream Activist, who for years have organized and advocated for their rights, long before I publicly outed myself as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine. Documented is also dedicated to my Mama—and immigrant parents and grandparents everywhere, from the European immigrants of Ellis Island, where 1 out of 3 Americans can trace their ancestry, to the immigrants of recent decades from Latin America, Asia and Africa, and the Caribbean, documented and undocumented, who are collectively ushering in a minority-majority America.
Documented is a project of Define American, a nonprofit media and culture campaign that I founded in June 2011. To us at Define American, politics is culture. Given the toxicity of the politics around immigration, we need mainstream media and popular culture to help elevate the conversation around immigration, citizenship, and identity in a changing America. Take the LGBT civil rights movement, for example. Culture played a crucial role in humanizing members of the LGBT community (Ellen DeGeneres on the cover of TIME magazine, Will & Grace) before politics and policy started shifting. The same cannot be said of immigration, where culture is behind politics and partisanship. Stories connect us, not politics. Stories.
A few months after I started filming, I visited Alabama, then home to H.B. 56, the most draconian anti-immigrant law in the country. In the farming town of Cullman, I met Lawrence Calvert, who worried that his best worker, Paco, a hard-working undocumented man from Guatemala, would be deported. "If I go to Paco’s house, his three children come hug me just like my grandkids come hug me,” Lawrence, 70, says of Paco, 32.
A lifelong Republican, Lawrence speaks of Paco, his wife (also undocumented), and their children (all U.S.-born American citizens) with sensitivity, nuance, and compassion—an unmistakable humanity—lacking from Republicans leaders like Sen. Jeff Sessions and Rep. Mo Brooks. ("As your congressman on the House floor, I will do anything short of shooting them," Brooks has said of “illegal aliens” who are “taking jobs from American citizens.”) Lawrence lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a time of the segregated Alabama of Bull Connor and Governor George Wallace. Like countless other allies, Lawrence feels like he’s living through another civil rights movement—the immigrant rights movement—and he has decided to take a stand.
Lawrence and I have kept in touch over the past two years. He was, in fact, the very first person to text me after he heard of the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines. (“Thinking of your mother in the Philippines my friend. I hope that neither she nor any other relatives were in harm’s way.”) A few weeks ago, I received a personal letter from Lawrence—a letter, he told me, that he’s been struggling to write since our first meeting at his Alabama farm.
With his permission, I am sharing some parts of the letter as he’s written it, complete with underlined words. The letter is four pages long, written on binder paper, in careful cursive. As I show Documented across the country, this is something I will carry with me everywhere I go.
Postmarked March 27, 2014 from Birmingham, Alabama
….You might say that this is part of my side of the story…
Please excuse my handwriting, punctuation, and spelling. This is the best that an old redneck farm boy from Cullman County, Alabama can do…
When I start to leave Paco’s and Madai’s (Paco’s wife) house after visiting them, or they start to leave my house after visiting me; their children are saying, “Bye bye papa, bye bye papa.” Finally one day, I asked Paco: “Paco, what are your children saying, what do they mean they tell me ‘Bye bye papa.’”
He said they are saying “Bye bye abuelo,” or to translate, “Bye bye grandfather.” This made me feel ever so great. My heart was filled with joy knowing that they thought of me in this way.
Paco told me a video his dad sent up from Guatemala, recently. The video was about his dad’s 73rd birthday and the celebration that they had for him. In the video he told me hello, of course, but that’s not really what I want to get at.
Paco told me that as their four children watched the video; they asked him: “Who is this man?” He said he told them: “That’s your abuelo, your grandfather.” He said they then asked him, “Como Papa?” To translate: “Like Papa?”
“Like Papa,” this too made me proud that they would make such a comparison. Joy filled my heart once more.
And then, suddenly, my joy turned to sadness, and my eyes filled with tears.
I had realized that Paco’s children don’t know their own grandfather. All they’ve got is a poor substitute…
I ask: Why can’t Paco take their children to Guatemala to visit an aging grandfather; and then return here to his home in the U.S.? Why can’t Madai take their children to Guatemala to visit an aging grandmother; and then return here to her home in the U.S.? Why can’t you, Jose, return to the Philippines to visit an aging mother; and return here to your home in the U.S.?
The hour grows late. The hour grows late for Paco’s dad, for Madai’s mom, for your mom, and yes even for me. Enough of the delay, it’s time for results.
The cause we share it not a right or left cause. It’s a right or wrong cause….
May God be with you.
In 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine. DOCUMENTED chronicles his journey to America from the Philippines as a child, his public struggle as an immigration reform activist/provocateur, and his journey inward as he reconnects with his mother, whom he hasn't seen in 20 years.
DOCUMENTED opens in theaters on May 2 at the Village East Cinemas in New York, May 9 at the Landmark Regent Theater in Los Angeles, followed by additional cities around the country. The film will air on CNN this summer. For more info, visit DocumentedTheFilm.com.