How to define an American

Posted7/3/2014 5:01 AM

It's a summer night in Washington. On the Mall, across from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, people are sitting on lawn chairs and huddled on blankets staring at a white screen. The feature: "Documented," the new film by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, one of most famous undocumented immigrants in the country -- and one of the most outspoken.

It's been three years since Vargas -- who had worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and other publications -- "came out" as an illegal immigrant in a 4,600-word essay in The New York Times Magazine. Since then, he has earned a good living by speaking at more than 200 events and visiting 110 colleges and universities in 45 states. He has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, started a nonprofit organization called "Define American," and shepherded a campaign to get newspapers to drop the term "illegal immigrant." (He calls himself an "undocumented American.")


Now, through more hard work and by paying half the production costs out of his pocket, he has become a filmmaker.

There's a scene in the documentary, which has been playing in movie theaters around the country for the last few months and which aired on CNN last week, in which Vargas is testifying before Congress. He makes it clear he's not going to be judged by sanctimonious lawmakers. Instead, he puts them on the spot.

"What do you want to do with me?" he asks them on behalf of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. "What do you want to do with us?"

Vargas was there that night in Washington, watching as the scene flashed on the screen, a short walk from where he testified.

Only in America.

My favorite scene in the film comes near the end when Vargas, who came to the United States from the Philippines to live with his grandparents at the age of 12 and did not discover he was here illegally until he went to get a driver's license as a teenager, shares a Skype call with his mother, who tried to follow him to America but was never able to leave the Philippines. For years, he felt abandoned. But, as we see, a mother's love transcends international borders. So does a son's.

In fact, while the filmmaker calls the finished product "an act of artistic civil disobedience," it is mainly a love letter from a son to his mother. It's also a love letter to his adopted country.

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"I have to say to America that I lied," Vargas told me. "And that I'm sorry. You find peace when you find gratitude. I love America, like I love my mother."

My relationship with Vargas has sometimes been frosty. In July 2011, just a few weeks after he revealed his status, I called him a "discredit to his profession" and someone who, through his deception, had "made an already tough job -- that of being an ethnic journalist -- more difficult."

What should we do with him? Deport him, I said. "What are we supposed to do?" I asked. "Grant him a special dispensation because he's a journalist and not a janitor? ... That's not what this country is about."

I was wrong. After watching this inspirational film, and interviewing Vargas on three different occasions, I now realize that this undocumented American has a better understanding than I do of what this country is about.


In speeches, I tell audiences that -- while I've written about immigration for a quarter-century -- I don't really understand the topic. I was born in the United States, just like my parents and three of my four grandparents. You want to know about immigration? Talk to an immigrant.

Still, I'll take up Vargas' challenge. How do I define American? It's someone with courage, ingenuity, perseverance, work ethic, love of freedom. It's someone who raises issues, raises consciousness and -- if needed -- raises hell.

This film should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand the human toll of a broken immigration system that likely won't be fixed anytime soon. And yet, if anyone has earned through talent and tenacity the right to live here legally, and perhaps get on a plane to visit his mother while knowing that he'll be welcomed back, it's Vargas.

Not letting anyone else define you. Lending your voice to those who don't have one. Striving for excellence and never giving up. That's what this country is all about.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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