Jose Antonio Vargas still optimistic about immigration reform

By Don Tagala, ABS-CBN North America Bureau

June 6, 2014

NEW YORK CITY – Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas was Thursday night’s keynote speaker at the 2014 Ippies Awards – the only journalism award in New York that honors journalistic excellence by the ethnic and community press.

Ironically, Vargas told the diverse crowd of ethnic and community journalists that the biggest challenge facing US media today is diversity.

Writer and director of “Documented” and co-founder of Define American, Vargas said, “Our newsrooms are still not as diverse as they should be, which means the stories that should be told are not being told and not being contextualized.”

In a city that is 37 percent foreign-born immigrants, Vargas says half a million of America’s 12 million undocumented immigrants live in New York City.

Vargas said that New York welcomed about 12 million undocumented Caucasian immigrants who came to America through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1955.

Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans and Jews — many of them didn’t even speak English but they were inspected, registered and eventually became Americans.

Now 60 years later, Vargas says America is again arguing on what to do with 12 million undocumented immigrants. But this time they are from Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

“So how do they fit in this entire equation and what is our role as story tellers to better integrate them to our content?” Vargas asked his colleagues.

Vargas says in studying America’s recent history, he found out that the Civil Rights Movement as well as the LGBT movement’s success in pushing for policy changes – such as the legalization of same-sex marriage – came only after certain cultural changes happened in America, such as the depiction of more same-sex couples in pop culture.

As Vargas’ film “Documented” premieres internationally on television via CNN Films on June 29, Vargas believes that getting the stories of the undocumented out in the mainstream pop culture could make a difference that could eventually change the politics and policies on immigration.

“Culture is politics, so until we change the culture of how we talk about ‘illegal people in America’, we’re not going to change anything,” he said. “So the goal of this film is to humanize, you know, how we talk about immigrants in this country.”

Meantime, while immigration reform has not passed, many undocumented Filipino immigrants like Vargas, are hoping that the that US would still grant temporary protected status or TPS to the Philippines — their best bet for legalization to stay and work in the US while the Philippines recover from Super Typhon Yolanda’s devastation.

But it seems, even TPS has lost steam.

“I’ve been disappointed about the little that has been happening about TPS,” Vargas said. “But you know look, at the end of the day this is a decision of the government.”

But even with the comprehensive immigration reform bill stalled in the US Congress and the granting of TPS to the Philippines stalled in Homeland Security, Vargas says he remains hopeful.

“I have to be hopeful, because I’m alive. So I try as much as possible to fight pessimism and cynicism, that’s too easy,” Vargas said.

You may contact Don Tagala at for more information.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Delia
    8 June 2014 at 7:28 am - Reply

    The arrogance is breathtaking, but not surprising.

  • JRB
    9 June 2014 at 10:46 am - Reply

    Give up you should go back to the Philippines and come back the right way.

  • Kuya
    10 June 2014 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    It’s not free……..