How Cultural Depictions Are Changing The Way We Think About Undocumented Immigrants

Jose Antonio Vargas introduced his film “Documented” in April 2014. CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/ ESTHER Y. LEE
Jose Antonio Vargas introduced his film “Documented” in April 2014. CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/ ESTHER Y. LEE

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three years ago, Jose Antonio Vargas became a litmus test for whether Americans could tolerate an openly undocumented immigrant. Here Vargas was — in a 4,000-word New York Times (NYT) Magazine feature — showing the world that he is a high-achieving, tax-paying man who used fake documents to work in the country, making some people uncomfortable with this message — I’m an American, too. Seeking to challenge preconceived opinions of the stereotypical undocumented immigrant, Vargas has since enlisted Hollywood to portray undocumented immigrants in a sympathetic light.

America responded by giving him numerous television guest appearances (“The Colbert Report,” “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” other cable news outlets) and a coveted Time Magazine cover. More than 2,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, or so-called DREAMers, flooded his inbox to say that they also outed their immigration status in part thanks to him.

Starting on May 2nd, Vargas’s documentary about his life after he revealed his immigration status, Documented, will premiere for a limited run in ten cities. In the documentary as in his NYT feature, Vargas’ backstory unfolds in an all too familiar way with immigrants who came to America without papers. He came to America from the Philippines at the age of 12. When he was 16, Vargas discovered that the identification documents he had been carrying since his arrival to the States were fake. He made a decision to lie about his legal status and used those documents to work hard and to become a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize (2007) and a coveted interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (2010).

Despite Vargas insisting that his “goal wasn’t to change the politics,” he has actively used his status as the most visible undocumented immigrant in America to strengthen the cultural perception of being an American. His coming out has helped to jettison undocumented immigration into mainstream popular culture in the way that Ellen DeGeneres helped to change the conversation about the gay community and The Joy Luck Club helped to mainstream Asian-American culture.


He explained that his documentary was meant to provide a cultural narrative about undocumented immigrants that would allow people to move beyond simple stereotypes. He said to ThinkProgress in mid-April, “Look at the gay rights movement. Things have shifted so fast that I don’t think we realize how dramatic it’s been. Before any piece of legislation, before same sex marriage became legal in state after state, Ellen [DeGeneres] was on the cover of Time Magazine, Ellen had her own television show, there was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, [and] Will and Grace.”

Hollywood has taken Vargas’ lead to break preconceived notions of the “typical” undocumented immigrant (portrayed by some as crossing the border with “cantaloupe calves”), which according to NBC Latino is deeply flawed. The 2012 National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions poll found that “over 30 percent of non-Hispanics believe a majority (over half) of Hispanics are undocumented” when only about 18 percent of the Hispanic population are undocumented and 37 percent are immigrants. Even Vargas was shocked.

“What I have found most tragic is how many people across the country use the term ‘illegal’ and ‘Mexican’ interchangeably. Now I knew it was bad. I didn’t know how bad it was until I really started traveling.”

Over the past few years, Hollywood has made an effort to make viewers sympathize with undocumented immigrants in some hit shows targeted at viewers between the ages of 25 and 54. In 2011, actress America Ferrera played an undocumented former nanny on the hit CBS show The Good Wife. When the character Eli Gold seeks to bring her immigration status to light in order to help his boss win the state attorney general’s seat, he finds her intelligence and wit so overwhelming that he instead helps her find a job, helps to save her dad from deportation, and later even asks her out to dinner. At the time, Ferrera told the Los Angeles Times that the show writers wanted to create a character that “had the kind of will to build an extraordinary life … that at any moment could be taken away from her.” In the same year, Tim Allen’s character in Last Man Standing Mike Baxter asks his boss, “if [undocumented immigrants] are so honest, why are they willing to go under the floor of a van to get into this country?” Alzate responds, “They’re just trying to better their lives. You’d do the same. You’d go to hell and back for your family.” It’s only when Baxter finds out that the “invaluable” foreman of the loading dock at his sporting goods company is undocumented that he pressures his boss to use an expensive employment-based visa sponsorship program. And in 2012, a Republican president fights to pass the DREAM Act on the show Scandal.

It is in collaborative efforts with activist organizations that viewers are exposed to a more realistic portrayal of undocumented immigrants. In 2013, singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc teamed with the National Education Association to release the “Wake Me Up” music video, which features several undocumented immigrants who are affected by deportation. The video has garnered more than 8.1 million views. Blacc said, “People aren’t just coming here to use the system. … There are millions out there who just want to make their dreams come true.”


Just this past year, Vargas advised an episode about immigration reform on BET’s “Being Mary Jane.” In 2012, Vargas helped “give notes” to Aaron Sorkin on the second episode of the Newsroom, which centered around Arizona’s anti-immigration state law SB 1070. Yet even with Vargas’ guidance and Hollywood’s well-meaning premises to humanize the characters, the conclusions are at times legally baffling and almost always unrealistic — many shows generally end with some kind of a solution out of deportation for the characters in trouble.

Vargas has also crusaded to change the cultural perception through other forms of media, namely social media and the newsroom.Through his civic engagement website called “Define American,” Vargas aims to change the way people view “Americanness.” He has urged newspapers to rethink the use of the term, “illegal immigrant,” a request that has met some success with The Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, which have largely banned the phrase. The New York Times has committed to using the term as it fits the situation. Pew’s Fact Tank blog also found that the phrase “illegal alien” has largely gone out of style.

Numerous polls show that a vast majority of Americans support some kind of legal status for non-criminal undocumented immigrants. But Vargas insisted that much more work needs to be done. He said, “The culture of the immigrant rights movement has not shifted. That’s why [Rep.] Steve King (R-IA) and [Sen.] Jeff Sessions (R-AL) can get away with what they get away with. People think [that] we’re all criminals mooching and taking away from society. This is what Jeb Bush (R) is saying that this is an ‘act of love.’ That’s a cultural conversation. That’s not political, that’s a cultural conversation. Unless we change the cultural conversation, we’re not going to change the politics.”