Defining American

Jose Antonio Vargas screens new documentary, pushes Kentucky to lead on immigration reform

Apr 30, 2014 at 5:00 am
Defining American

Immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas visited Louisville last week to screen his new documentary, “Documented,” which tells his amazing story of becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist while secretly being an undocumented immigrant, and the journey he took once he decided to reveal his legal status and risk deportation in an effort to push forward immigration reform.

In “Documented,” Vargas shares his tale of being sent by his mother from the Philippines as a child to live with his grandparents in America, only to find out at age 16 that he was not a legal resident. The film gives an intimate view of his decision-making process in coming out of the shadows, touring the country to advocate for the DREAM Act — giving a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to America through no fault of their own — and the personal strain this created with his family back home, who he has not been able to visit since he was a child.

The film premieres in New York on Friday with 11 cities to follow, and will be aired on CNN this summer, as Vargas — along with his nonprofit Define American — seeks to change the conversation about what it really means to be an American and bring about comprehensive immigration reform for the over 10 million undocumented immigrants currently residing here.

In a panel discussion following the film, Vargas told the audience to challenge their elected officials on what he views as a moral crisis for the country. Sounding slightly pessimistic that the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives will even vote on the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate last year, Vargas called on Kentucky to lead the way where they can.

“Why can’t there be driver’s licenses for the 80,000 or so undocumented immigrants in this state that contribute about $60 million in state and local taxes?” asked Vargas. “If you’re here and you believe that undocumented people in Kentucky should have driver’s licenses, can you stand up?”

As more than 100 people stood and raised their hands, Vargas took a photo of them with his phone, adding, “I’m going to send this picture to Rand Paul.”


After months of inaction, there is now sudden movement among House Republicans to push through immigration reform. Though last year’s Senate bill is known to have enough votes to pass the House, Speaker John Boehner has not brought it to the floor for a vote because it does not have the support of a majority of his caucus. However, several Republican congressmen signaled last week that they will attempt to push through a vote, and Boehner openly mocked the cowardice of his fellow Republicans for not wanting a vote because it is “too hard” for them politically.

Vargas tells LEO that he was especially pleased to see statements from Sen. Paul earlier this month in which he said his party needed to move “beyond deportation” as an immigration policy and offer reassurances that “Mr. Garcia’s nephew is not going to be sent home to Mexico.” Vargas — who also lauds Paul for using “undocumented” terminology instead of “illegals” — says he reached out to Paul after his comments but has not heard back from him.

“It’s one thing to say it, and it’s another thing to act on it,” says Vargas. “But in a time like this, I think we have to embrace any kind of rhetoric that has nuance and compassion and a sense of humanity. And that, coupled with what Jeb Bush said last week (that immigration is an “act of love”), is very encouraging to hear. I don’t think it’s any accident that both of them are considering running for president.”

While Vargas is encouraged by the recent movement among Republicans, he says he remains realistic about the chances of reform in the House, as “we’re at the mercy of a midterm election and a presidential election. A lot of this is going to be political posturing.” Also encouraging for Vargas is the fact that the Obama administration is currently reviewing their deportation policy, which has deported more immigrants than any other president.

“I think they are realizing that they have a moral crisis on their hands that goes way beyond politics,” says Vargas. “And it's also an issue of legacy. Does the first minority president want to be remembered as the president who deported 2 million people, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters?”

Despite this historic pace of deportations, Sen. Mitch McConnell was one of 22 senators who sent a letter to Obama last week deriding his new review, saying it will “nullify” immigration enforcement and “discard the rule of law.” McConnell twice filibustered the DREAM Act when it had a chance of passing, and voted against immigration reform last year.

“I actually cannot think of another Republican leader with such stature who is as tone deaf on this issue as Mitch McConnell, time after time,” says Vargas. “Do we have to show up at his house with food or something, just to have a meal with him and tell him what’s up? He’s the Senate minority leader, how can he be that out of touch and tone deaf? It’s embarrassing.”

McConnell's presumed Democratic opponent this fall's Senate race, Alison Lundergan Grimes, did not respond to LEO's inquiry on whether she supports the Senate immigration bill.

Whether or not Congress acts, Vargas says states should lead the way on reform. He lauds California for recently becoming one of 11 states to allow driving certificates for undocumented immigrants, noting that two-thirds of recent deportations came about through minor infractions, such as traffic violations. “People are getting pulled over and they don’t have a driver’s license, and before you know it, they’re separated from their families, many of whom are American citizen relatives,” says Vargas. “So a driver's license for me is the most accessible and human way that we can talk about this issue.”

A similar bill in Kentucky’s state House passed out of committee in 2013, but did not make it to the floor for a vote. The bill went nowhere in this year’s session that just ended, as House Democrats were reluctant to stick their neck out on several controversial issues in an election year where their slim majority hangs in the balance.

This almost happened to Vargas himself in 2012, partly thanks to yours truly. After leaving an event in Louisville that October, he was pulled over in Minnesota by a police officer, who found a copy of LEO Weekly with Vargas’ face on the cover. After being detained for five hours, he was let go, which might have only happened because the presidential election was in five weeks — not the headline Obama wanted.

“I had to laugh-cry, it was so surreal,” says Vargas. “This is where I really have to own up to my own privilege, and with privilege comes great responsibility. Which is why I’m doing what I’m doing. When you think about all of these stories (of undocumented immigrants), I just want you to know that we’re all in the same boat.”

The driving certificate bill that stalled in last year's General Assembly session in Frankfort was sponsored by Rep. Johnny Bell, a Democrat from farm country in Barren County. Bell tells LEO that such legislation is not just for public safety concerns -- which is also echoed by former LMPD homicide detective Rep. Denver Butler of Louisville -- but is important on humanitarian grounds, as state government has a responsibility to protect these vulnerable people from exploitation if the federal government won't step in and address the issue.

The immigration issue is also personal for Bell, who grew up working alongside many Latino immigrants in the tobacco fields. Bell told LEO the story of a man he once worked with who traveled back to Mexico to give his mother a bone marrow transplant and then had to rely on shady characters to smuggle himself back into the country to reunite with his wife and three children. However, he and other were locked in a cramped semi truck for days in the hot Texas summer, where he and three other people died.

Bell is now being attacked by his Republican opponent on immigration, but he will not apologize for taking a humane stance towards his fellow man.

"When I talk about immigration reform in my district, it is very unpopular, and it's causing me a lot of grief right now," says Bell. "I have a race in November right now and they're really beating me up over it. But I can't change my position on that, because I just don't think it's the Christian thing to treat people that way. And I'm going to have to stand my ground on that."

Bell says hearts will begin to change if people have an informed and rational discussion of the issue, but people with a agenda are intent on not letting that happen so they can use this as a political wedge issue.

"There's been so much propaganda about this and there's such a lack of understanding that it's basically being used to win and lose elections," says Bell. "That's very unfortunate when you're using something like that and it affects so many people. It's really a sad state of affairs."

But such action at the state level could be preempted by the federal government if Congress decides to finally deliver on a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Congressman John Yarmuth worked last year with Republican House members on a compromise bill in the so-called Gang of Seven, which eventually fell apart when GOP members shied away from a stand which might hurt them politically among their conservative base. However, Yarmuth never gave up hope on this legislation, and found the movement last week from Boehner and other Republicans as a hopeful sign that they're now willing to come to the table and pass legislation.

"I've felt all along that Boehner at some point would figure out a way to get something done, and now he's getting support from some pretty prominent Republicans," Yarmuth tells LEO. "If there are 70 to 80 Republicans that are willing to vote for a comprehensive package, I think that would give Boehner all the support he needs to do it."

Though Democrats recently filed a discharge petition to force a vote on the Senate immigration bill -- needing about 27 Republicans to join them -- Yarmuth says that its success is unlikely. He believes that ultimately Boehner must craft a Republican compromise to pull in enough of his caucus, with the trickiest issue being what kind of path to citizenship there will be for undocumented immigrants. Regardless of whether or not that comes to fruition, Yarmuth is grateful that Obama is finally reviewing his deportation policy.

"We've been encouraging him to do that for a long time now," says Yarmuth. "The fact is that they're tearing families apart. We have literally thousands and thousands of American citizen foster children because of these deportations. They're deporting parents of children who are here legally and the kids end up in foster homes."

"Documented" contains heart-wrenching scenes that show both triumph and pain in Vargas' quest for a humane immigration policy. The camera is on Vargas as he gets a phone call tipping him off that Obama would announce his deferred action plan the following day to grant legal status to young "DREAMers," with that joy quickly becoming bittersweet as he learns that he is one year older than its age limit. In an uncomfortable scene, Vargas tells a drunk Alabaman who has just railed against immigrants that he is undocumented, but then Vargas shows a Republican Alabama farmer who treats undocumented workers like family and wants humane immigration reform. Vargas is shown being thrown out of a Mitt Romney campaign event where the candidate calls for deporting all undocumented immigrants, but the viewer also sees many brave young immigrants sharing their story publicly in order to put a human face on the issue.

Those faces from the film are the ones Vargas wants America to see.

"This is why movies are important, this is why art is important, this is why culture is important," says Vargas. "At the end of the day, stories connect us as people, not politics."

It is this inevitably changing culture that Vargas believes will ultimately make immigration reform possible, whether that comes this year or this decade.

"I am optimistic that some movement will happen (in the House)," says Vargas. "We're all looking at the same demographic maps. Does the Republican Party want to be known as the anti-immigrant party at a time when 50 percent of Americans under the age of 18 are not white? Do you really want to alienate those voters? I think that's the issue."