Undocumented: The faces behind the immigration debate

Jim Avila, Richard Coolidge, and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players
Undocumented: The faces behind the immigration debate

Power Players

In many ways, Jose Antonio Vargas is an American success story. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker.

There’s only one problem: he didn’t immigrate to the United States legally.

When Vargas was 12 years old, his mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents, who are naturalized U.S. citizens, in the United States. It wasn’t until he applied for a driver’s permit four years later that he learned he was living in the country undocumented.

“I went to the DMV to get a driver's permit, like any 16 year old, and that's when they found out that the green card that my grandfather gave me was actually fake,” Vargas tells ABC Senior National Correspondent Jim Avila. “And then I went home, confronted my grandfather, and that's when he said to me, you know, ‘what are you doing showing that to people?’”

While Vargas was initially shocked at learning he was not in the United States legally, he has since learned that his situation is not all that uncommon.

“I'm a part of what they call a mixed status family,” Vargas tells Power Players. “There are 17 million households in America where there's at least one undocumented person in the household.”

Vargas has now made a documentary to tell his story, describing the film as “documentation of an undocumented person.”

“I've been here since I was 12…but I haven't left,” Vargas says. “If I leave, there's no guarantee I'll be able to go back, which means I haven't seen my mother in person since August 1993. So, it's almost 20 years.”

In making the film “Documented,” Vargas sent a team of producers to interview his mother in the Philippines, though he was unable to go himself since he would have no guarantee that he’d be able to return to the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

“I remember when they got back…and looking at the hours of footage, you know I haven't seen my mother in,” Vargas says, taking a long pause. “I've seen more of my mother seeing her on a screen, editing her, editing her.”

“I didn't realize just how much I I'd lost. Just how much she'd lost,” he says. “I don't know how to explain 20 years.”

To hear more about Vargas’ story and his upcoming documentary, including what he says the immigration debate is really about from his perspective, check out this episode of Power Players.

ABC's Eric Wray, Alexandra Dukakis, Matt Larotonda, Tom D’Annibale, and Ed Jennings contributed to this episode.