‘Documented,’ the film: The truth of a son’s struggle to be reunited with his mother in the context of a broken immigration system

‘Documented,’ the film: The truth of a son’s struggle to be reunited with his mother in the context of a broken immigration system

[Editor’s note: This column was originally published in May 2014, but was edited and updated to reflect the current immigration debate in the United States.] 

“IMMIGRATION is by definition a gesture of faith in social mobility. It is the expression in action of a positive belief in the possibility of a better life. It has thus contributed greatly to developing the spirit of personal betterment in American society and to strengthening the national confidence in change and the future. Such confidence, when shared, sets the national tone. The opportunities that America offered made the dream real, at least for a good many; but the dream itself was in large part the product of millions of plain people beginning a new life in the conviction that life could indeed be better, and each new wave of immigration rekindled the dream. It gave every old American a standard by which to judge how far he had come and every new American, a realization of how far he might go. It reminded every American, old and new, that change is the essence of life, and that American society is a process, not a conclusion. ”— Pres. John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants, 1964, 2008.

In America, if we believe FOX News and ethnic cable televisions, the discussion to consider “the other, ” is effectively closed.  We label them as if they do not matter. “Get your papers or get out, or worse, go back to Mexico.” They also come from India, China, Philippines, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, Dominican Republic and Guatemala. Before, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Poland — and America excluded them.

They are our nannies and caretakers to our children, caregivers to ailing relatives, chefs and waiters who serve us our restaurant food, gardeners in our yards, all significant aspects of our American lives, yet, we cast them aside to the margins, to the shadows.

In 2010, these Americans, with no documents, supported the mainstream, paying $11.2 billion in state and federal taxes, yet remained isolated, until a face came forward. Jose Antonio Vargas (JAV) wrote his essay on being undocumented, in June 2011 in the New York Times. A year earlier, Gaby Pacheco and three friends walked 1,500 miles from Miami to DC to bring awareness to this issue.

JAV is gay, Filipino American, without documents, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, who had written for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the New Yorker and Rolling Stone.  He discovered he was undocumented when he tried applying for his driver’s license at the DMV at age 16.

“I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it. I’ve tried. Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream. But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.”

“I would write my way right into America, “ he optimistically planned his life.

Watching “Documented,” a film

Filled with empathy for JAV, so many faces were streaked with tears from crying, while others wiped them off, after watching “Documented,” a jointly sponsored screening by The Asia Society and the Museum of Tolerance. It is not a teleserye ala Maalala Mo Kaya’s over-the-top emoting style. It is a credible documentary that effectively threads conversations and dialogue from those who believe immigrants do not belong here, and if they do, they must go back to the end of the line and apply. JAV wrote and directed the film.

There is no line to wait in when you are an American, undocumented. There are no categories to apply for, to get a green card, even for those who have been here for years, even for those who have paid taxes. Families continue to be broken, not one year, not two years, in some cases, twenty years.

By the time they are reunited, in JAV’s case, he wanted to have his green card by his next birthday to visit his mom. His fantasy was that at the airport, there will be two of them, Emelia and Jose, and after they hug, chat, a five-hour drive to Zambales, more chats, eat, and takes him to the beach, where he spent time with his cousins.

On June 15, 2012, a memorandum authored by the Obama administration called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) qualified folks who came here as children, and only if they are under 29 years old. JAV was 30 and he didn’t qualify. He also asserts that 2,000,000 have now been deported by the Obama administration, a number that has to be substantiated.

Separation is a common thread

JAV was four when his grandparents left for the U.S. His grandfather was a security guard and his grandmother was a food server. They both earned minimum wage, but remitted dollars to support Emelia and JAV, until 12-year-old JAV joined his grandparents in California.

“Mother and I slept in the same bed, inseparable,” JAV narrates in the film.

“I joined Facebook. There years, he would not accept me. Such a simple thing. It’s just Facebook. Last letter he sent was 11/1997. It’s like we don’t know each other. It’s really hard. The son that used to tell me, ‘Mama, I love you.’ Like any mother, [I want to] embrace my child, and just want to hug him, touch his face,” Emelia breaks down and cries, and with her, the audience watching the film, including this writer.

“I guess I hadn’t realized how broken I had felt until I saw how broken she was. I mean, we talk on the phone. Like many immigrant families, I’ve been supporting her and my half-siblings since I was in my early 20s. I helped financially support them, and then that’s it. I don’t want to have to think beyond that because I couldn’t handle beyond that. You know, there was so much geographical and emotional separation. In many ways she had been a part of me that I don’t really like talking about, you know? I was going through two journeys: There was the public journey; there was the private journey. And the public face was, I was going to try to go toe to toe with everybody, may it be Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly or Michelle Malkin. But talking about my mom and allowing myself to be vulnerable like that was just not something that I do, “ as JAV confides to Mother Jones’s Ian Gordon.

The audience was riveted by the Q and A, a conversation between Jonathan Karp, the executive director of the Asia Society, and JAV, who is also the founder of Define American.

In a one-on-one conversation with this writer, post-screening, JAV shared his intentions: “It is a film, it is to occupy a cultural space and to take immigration out of the political realm. I am for immigrants and the film is intended to change perception and to move and to shift culture in the media.”

Would you believe a friend of mine, Lillian, has already seen this in Hawaii, but opted to brave the traffic to see it a second time?

Considering this was shown while former Pres. Barack Obama was visiting USC, to accept the Shoal Foundation’s award from Steven Spielberg at the Ambassadors for Humanity gala, tying up traffic in LA, the room was full. Lillian wanted to contribute to the debate on immigration reform by taking her children to see this film.

This is what happens when a film moves someone’s heart. Hearts get moved, until the tipping point of action, and when there is a massive desire from so many people, as in a democracy wherein citizens are engaged, “We will keep moving forward until it gets done.”


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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.

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