Jose Antonio Vargas
How do we define being 'American'?
04:38 - Source: CNN

Jose Antonio Vargas, the founder of Define American, is the writer and director of “Documented,” airing on CNN on Sunday, June 29, at 9 p.m. ET. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Jose Antonio Vargas produced and directed the CNN Film "Documented"

Vargas announced his status as an undocumented immigrant in June 2011

He writes that making the film 'is an act of civil disobedience' to humanize a 'politicized issue'

Vargas earned a Pulitzer Prize for Washington Post's coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre

CNN  — 

“What do you want to do with me?”

What do you want to do with us?

How do you define American?”

On behalf of 11 million undocumented immigrants like me – many of us Americans in all but papers – I asked those questions to the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2013, nearly two years after I publicly outed myself as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times Magazine.

Against the advice of lawyers, I wrote, in detail, what I had to do to live and survive in America: hide in plain sight as I worked as a journalist for more than a decade; lie on government forms to get jobs while paying taxes and contributing to Social Security (undocumented workers provide billions in both); grow estranged from my mother in the Philippines who put me on a plane to the United States in 1993. In outing myself, I risked everything and prepared myself for anything.

What I was not prepared for, however, was silence, especially from politicians in Washington, where immigration has become the third rail of American politics, often framed in partisan, polarizing terms, mostly subjected to elections, and tied to the future of political parties.

Consider this state of affairs: Congressional leaders, particularly House Republicans, hesitate to pass substantive reform because they don’t trust the Obama administration to enforce immigration laws.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been busy enforcing the laws by deporting nearly 2 million immigrants in five years – that’s a record, and an unjustifiable part of President Barack Obama’s legacy. And in the backdrop of this finger-pointing, political standstill is an urgent moral crisis among millions of families in America.

To us who are directly affected by the political standstill, immigration is urgent and personal. Immigration is about our families.

‘I didn’t know I was undocumented’

The film “Documented,” a project of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Define American campaign, is about my families: the family I was blessed to be born into, and the family of friends, mentors and allies that I found when I moved to the United States at 12, a Filipino kid trying to make sense of my new home in America.

As an undocumented gay teenager in the 1990s, I had to believe that whenever I heard people use the terms “illegal” and “faggot,” they were not talking about me. As I graduated from public schools and started working in newsrooms, I told myself that I am only the “illegal” that my own country has not bothered to get to know.

Watch 'Documented'

Watch ‘Documented’

  • Explore the journey out of the shadows led by undocumented immigrant and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. CNN Films’ “Documented” airs Sunday, June 29, at 9 p.m.

    To me, making “Documented” is an act of civil disobedience, a way of humanizing, in a very specific but hopefully universal way, an incredibly politicized issue.

    In the film, I own up to my privilege and my pain: the privilege of traveling across the U.S. and insisting that we look at immigration beyond the Latino border-security lens as other immigrants like me are detained and deported, and the pain of not seeing my mother in person in almost 21 years. (If I leave, there’s no guarantee that I will be allowed back. My mother has been denied a tourist visa and awaits a family visa to come to the United States.)

    I made the film in honor of my Mama, and immigrant parents everywhere who dream of better futures for their children.

    I made the film in honor of countless allies to undocumented immigrants: the educators and teachers who mentor us, the neighbors and co-workers who keep our secrets and help protect us.

    I made the film in honor of the estimated 11 million immigrants and human beings whose lives, like mine, remain in limbo, pledging allegiance to a flag that has yet to recognize us. Everything I was scared and ashamed of, I put in the film in hopes of sparking a more honest conversation about immigration, citizenship and identity in a changing America.

    Opinion: The undocumented are us

    Among the scenes included in “Documented” is my Senate testimony.

    I spent days preparing for the flood of difficult and uncomfortable questions I was certain that Judiciary Committee members Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Republican senators from Texas, a border state, would ask me. Both were present at the hearing that morning, but neither bothered to sit through the testimony of an “illegal” they’ve long maligned and politicized.

    When it comes to fighting for citizenship that many people take for granted, there isn’t anyone I would not talk to. When it comes to immigration, there isn’t any question I will not answer.

    As you watch “Documented” on CNN, I ask you, my fellow Americans: What do you want to do with me? What do you want to do with us? How do you define American?

    If you’ve immigrated to the United States, we want to hear your story. What was your path to citizenship or residency like? Share a personal essay about your experiences with CNN iReport.