As the son of two Filipino immigrants who came here legally in the ’60s, Documented hits me right in the gut. Trying to remain objective about this is a bit of a struggle for me, as I have internalized the sacrifices my parents and their families made for us to be here. Fellow Filipino-American Jose Antonio Vargas – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and immigration reform activist – has captured his fight for legal recognition as an American citizen and let loose this compelling documentary as a testament to how someone can come here and make a good life for themselves without having been born here.
Immigration reform has always been a hot button topic for many Americans; after the events of September 11, 2001, it’s become even more of a pressing issue. So desperate are we to close off the borders to potential terrorists that we forget there are productive, well-intentioned members of our society who want to improve not only their lives, but the lives of others as well. Vargas is one of these people.
Documented spins the label of “illegal immigrant” into “undocumented American,” which does kind of take the sting and stigma out of that first two-word combination. In the eyes of a large quotient of the US population, someone who isn’t born here, lived here long enough to be a naturalized citizen, or gone through the drawn-out process of becoming a citizen doesn’t belong here at all. But there is a growing subset of undocumented Americans like Vargas who came here as children who are caught in that netherworld – it wasn’t their choice to come here, but they’ve made the most of their time here and have adopted the US as their home country.
It’s this problem that has become Vargas’ fight. Through his camera, we see him “come out” to the world at large, putting his storied career as a journalist and correspondent for the likes of The Washington Post, CNN, and other such media outlets in jeopardy to focus on making a case for citizenship for people like him. Over its 90-minute running time, Documented details not just his activist life, but his highly tumultuous personal life as well. It’s heartbreaking to know that he hasn’t seen his mother in person since the day he left the Philippines in 1993, just as it’s heartbreaking to know that he won’t even acknowledge her on Facebook in fear of the questions that may arise from publishing such information.
The editing is impeccable in Documented, provoking well-earned emotional responses with every speech he gives, with every personal revelation disclosed, and with every mention of his long-lost family. Even though at the heart of it (and he acknowledges this) he is here illegally and he knows he can’t endanger his status too much by putting himself out there, he does it anyway. If a purpose of a documentary is to expose us to a different side of things and make us think differently about our worldview, then Documented succeeds exceedingly. By putting not just a face, but many faces to this issue and making it more of a personal statement, Vargas doesn’t just make us think about it – he makes us feel.