Jose Antonio Vargas: 'The hardest stories we tell are always about ourselves'


Early in his career, Jose Antonio Vargas wrote two stories on immigration, including one on undocumented immigrants and driver's licenses while he was also trying to get one.

"And that's when it got really surreal," he told Poynter in a phone interview.

Vargas came out as undocumented three years ago in The New York Times Magazine. His film "Documented" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, June 29 on CNN. "The very network that gave Lou Dobbs a platform for years is airing this film," Vargas told Poynter in a phone interview. "I don't think this should be lost on anybody. It's certainly not lost on me."

Since his Times article, the Pulitzer Prize winner started the nonprofit Define American, and he's spoken at about 250 events in 43 states. When he began directing "Documented," Vargas imagined it would be a film telling the story of other young undocumented people.

Then, he sent the film crew to his mom in the Philippines and the story changed. It became a love letter to his mom, whom he hasn't seen since he was 12.

"And to me, it's also a love letter to this country."

"Documented" tells his very personal story, about coming out as undocumented and asking, again and again, three very simple questions.

"What do you want to do with me? What do you want to do with us? How do you define American?"

[caption id="attachment_257220" align="alignnone" width="2326"]A still from "Documented." A still from "Documented." [/caption]

In the gray

Right now, Vargas said, we live in a golden age of storytelling, thanks to technology, and also a dramatic age of diversity.

"So diversity plus technology equals storytelling," he said.

But many journalists are missing immigration's human stories, he said.

"Mainstream news organizations report on immigration largely from the perspectives of politics and politicans. How often do you get to hear the process getting talked about?"

Reporters including The New York Times' Damien Cave and The Washington Post's Eli Saslow are telling human stories, "but for the most part, the American public understands immigration because we as journalists mostly frame it from a political perspective."

Immigration isn't a black and white issue. Much of it exists in the gray. That's where the stories are, he said.

"As a journalist, I always gravitate toward the gray area and the process area. The way immigration is written about is so black and white, it's legal, it's illegal."

Vargas calls himself the most privileged undocumented immigrant in America. He's a product of the country, he said, and a product of American newsrooms.

"I think we in the media for the most part are missing the moral crisis that is happening in our own country."

[caption id="attachment_257224" align="alignnone" width="1588"]A still from "Documented." A still from "Documented."[/caption]


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