Review: “Documented” Exposes The Ignorance Behind Anti-Immigrant Attitudes

“Get the mother fuck out of here,” slurs a drunk and angry anti-immigrant Southerner to director and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas. Thirty seconds later, after learning that Vargas had been paying taxes for 18 years, the drunk reached out with a congratulatory fist-pound. “Documented” is a winning documentary, partly because it exposes the rank ignorance that underlies the anti-immigration attitudes of so many Americans.

The film is especially timely, as a second bout of comprehensive immigration reform is struggling through the difficult legislative process. The tech industry is fiercely lobbying Congress to increase the number of high-skilled immigrant visas, and has teamed up with advocates of immigration reform to push through the still-frail bill.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the San Francisco elite were out in full force last night to advance immigration reform at the screening of the documentary. “This is something we believe is really important for our country,” said Zuckerberg, before he introduced Vargas.

The most memorable nuggets of the film are the raw interactions with well-meaning anti-immigrant Americans confronted with the inescapable difficulties of living life as the child of undocumented immigrants, and the bizarre legal barriers that have kept Vargas in citizenship limbo.

The bulk of the film chronicles Vargas through his heart-breaking self-discovery as an undocumented worker at the age of 16 and then his chutzpah to lie his way though a Pulitzer-prize winning career. “They didn’t expect Jose would have such abilities,” admits Vargas’ uncle, who thought, like his other kin who had snuck into America, Vargas would send small paychecks back to his family in the Philippines, made from a blue-collar job.

Turns out, Vargas was as driven as he was intelligent, and managed to snag selective jobs at the nation’s ailing newspapers. Recalling the first time he had to lie on an application to get a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, Vargas thought, “Why don’t I just earn what being a citizen is?” and checked “Yes, I am legal to work in the United States.”

Years later, after Vargas came out as undocumented with a headline-sparking New York Times OpEd, he shed his tech-writer exterior to become an immigration reform activist. “I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.”

At a rally for then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, rabidly anti-immigrant attendees approached Vargas, who was egging on the crowd with an “I am undocumented” sign. “Get in line” they told him. To which Vargas explained, “there is no line!”

Unfortunately, legislative reform to give legal status to children brought to America illegally failed in the “do-nothing” Congress last term. Since then, so-called “DREAMers” have no way of becoming citizens. As Vargas explains while trying to fill out an application for a green card, since he is neither the kin of documented immigrants, or the parent of undocumented children, there is no existing pathway to citizenship.

The earnest Romney attendees ask him, “Have you contacted [Senator] Grassley?”, apparently unable to grasp the concept that the government can — literally — do nothing to help Vargas and the 11 million like him. The interactions in the film are the only data point I’ve seen where, every day, immigrant-averse Americans are exposed to the harsh realities of undocumented life and soften their opposition as a result.

The partly good news is that the chairman of the powerful Judiciary committee, Republican Bob Goodlatte, tells me that he is spearheading a bill specifically for DREAMers in the Fall.

So, while there’s a strong possibility that most of Congress is on Vargas’s side, if comprehensive immigration fails, it could take years for another chance.

Vargas is convinced that Silicon Valley will rally behind the moral imperative of non-tech immigration reform. As such, the film deliberately avoids the argument that immigration reform is beneficial to the economy.

I fear that if Vargas only tugs at heart strings, he’ll have to battle with so many other pressing global issues. If he can prove that the American economy is served by letting in additional driven, talented DREAMers, it will be much easier to rally his workaholic, deep-pocketed friends in the Valley.

Of course, the economics vs. morality debate may be moot, since Congress seems intent on only passing a bill that deals with both low- and high-skilled immigrants. Given the difficult path immigration reform has in Congress, Vargas was wise to cap off the screening of his film last night with a quote from Martin Luther King: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”