What makes you American? Is it simply the fact that you were born here in America, or legally became a citizen? I think the answer is far more complicated. Does being American mean that you pay taxes? Is it a sense of duty to your country? Alternatively, is it simply just an indescribable inner part of you? Being “American” is an amalgamation of so many things beyond just being born within the United States. In fact, for many, being born in the U.S. is hardly a defining characteristic at all. What makes you American is one of the questions Jose Antonio Vargas seeks to answer in his film, Documented. Furthermore, Vargas wants to show viewers that “illegal immigrants” are not faceless and nameless, but human beings like everyone else.
Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winning, American journalist who also happens to be an undocumented citizen. Vargas has been living in the United States illegally since he was 12. Vargas considers himself a law abiding, tax paying, and productive member of American society. He decided to make Documented in order to show the face of undocumented America, chronicle his own experiences after coming out as “illegal,” and to show that there is no clear path to citizenship for these undocumented citizens, citizens that have been “American” for years. According to Vargas, the system that allows for legal immigration is broken, and needs to be changed.
Documented follows Vargas as he comes out as an “illegal” immigrant, shows his work with “Dreamers,” or supporters of the Dream Act, as well as chronicles his journey to reconnect with his mother. This film is best for the citizen with limited knowledge on immigration, because the film opens viewer’s eyes to the perils of immigration and gives a face to what is often treated as an abstract issue. Since I consider myself more progressive when it comes to immigration and immigration reform, I was excited to watch this film. However, despite my open-mindedness, there were many concepts and ideas Vargas discussed that had just never occurred to me. For example, Vargas raises the question of what is the connotation behind calling someone an “illegal.” For me, and I am sure others, when you think of an “illegal” immigrant the image of a person of Hispanic decent pops into your head. This is certainly the face the media has put to the term “illegal” immigrant, especially here in California. However, Vargas brings to light the fact that a large portion of “illegal” immigrants come from Asian countries, African countries, and, surprisingly, European countries as well. While this is not a mind-blowing piece of information, it needed to be said because this is an aspect of immigration that is easily ignored in light of the more local concern of Mexican immigrants. Furthermore, Vargas pushes for the term “undocumented” rather than “illegal,” because of the negative connotation that “illegal” carries. For many of the undocumented citizens living in the United States, they consider themselves American. The “undocumented” have lived in America for years, and while here, have graduated high school, found jobs, and pay taxes. Essentially, they are American. They are good people who do not deserve to be dehumanized and treated negatively with the term, “illegal.” Vargas also takes a closer look at the process for legal immigration to discuss how it is a flawed system that has people waiting for decades to immigrate legally to America, and offers no clear path to citizenship for those that have been here for years.
It is because of both the personable nature of the film, and it’s inclusion of little mentioned facts that makes Documented a must watch, regardless of your stance on immigration. Documented puts a face to the process, and makes it easy to become just a little more informed on an issue that is currently a hot topic within our American culture. So, the next time you define yourself as an American, take a moment to think of what it really means, because maybe then we can change the way our culture thinks of undocumented citizens.