Jose Antonio Vargas
Watch a clip of CNN Films 'Documented'
02:19 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Jose Antonio Vargas produced and directed "Documented"

The film will air on CNN this year

Vargas announced his status as an undocumented immigrant in June 2011

"I am not the 'illegal' you think I am, and immigration is not what you think it is," Vargas writes

CNN  — 

Every day, an estimated 1,100 immigrants are deported. The U.S. government has deported nearly 2 million immigrants in five years – a record.

But not me.

I am privileged to still be in America, my home, and privileged to put “Documented” on the screen.

To me, politics is culture. I became a journalist, and later a filmmaker, to get to know my new country and my volatile place in it as a gay, undocumented Filipino-American. As a newcomer to America who learned to “speak American” by watching movies, I firmly believe that to change the politics of immigration and citizenship, we must change culture – the way we portray undocumented people like me and our role in society.

That’s why I felt compelled to take charge of my own narrative and write, produce and direct “Documented.”

This film, to me, is as much an artistic statement as it is a political one: I am not the “illegal” you think I am, and immigration is not what you think it is.

After publicly outing myself as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times Magazine in June 2011, I had planned to make a film about undocumented youth who call themselves “DREAMers,” named after a long¬stalled congressional bill called the DREAM Act.

I had written my story, I thought – I was done. In my mind it was time to find and document other stories. But after nearly a year of shooting, wherein my story joined the fold, I was forced to ask harder questions of myself.

How could I possibly tell my story and not include my mother? And if I were to include my mother, who lives in the Philippines, how do I direct the shoot if I cannot leave the United States? (If I leave, there’s no guarantee that I would be allowed back. My mother has been denied a tourist visa and awaits a family visa to come to the United States.)

And, the toughest question of all: Can I trust myself to tell my own story? Making this film became more painful, more confrontational, and wholly personal. Mama put me on a plane to America at age 12 and I have not seen her in person since. While editing the film, I saw more of her than I have in the past 20 years.

This is not the film I set out to make, but it is the film I needed to make. A broken immigration system means broken families and broken lives.

I did not realize how broken I was until I saw how broken Mama was. In the process of documenting myself, I ended up documenting Mama – and the sacrifices of parents who make America what it is, then and now.

And in telling my own specific story that underscores a universal truth, I hope it incites others to tell their stories, too.

At the very least, I want viewers to ask the question I posed as I filmed and traveled our country from California, Iowa to Alabama: How do you define American?