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How Technology Has Changed The Lives Of Undocumented Immigrants

In Jose Antonio Vargas’s new film, Documented, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist details his personal struggle living a public life in the U.S., but always in hiding. But Facebook and Skype have allowed him to finally reconnect with his mother in the Philippines after decades apart.

How Technology Has Changed The Lives Of Undocumented Immigrants
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

The most heartbreaking moments in Jose Antonio Vargas’s Documented, a new film about the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s life as an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S., comes from his mother. While crying, she explains to the audience that Jose won’t accept her Facebook friend request. In another context, this would be silly–lots of people try to separate themselves from their parents on social media. But this situation is different.

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Since Vargas is undocumented, he can’t travel to the Philippines to see her; meanwhile, she is unable to obtain a tourist visa to see him in the U.S. As a result, the two haven’t seen each other in person in well over a decade, and up until recently, they had very little contact. As Vargas pointed out during a question and answer session after a screening of the film presented by the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, California, (Vargas grew up in nearby Mountain View) communication tools like Facebook and Skype play an integral role in his experience as an undocumented immigrant, as they do for so many immigrants around the world. But he personally felt uncomfortable connecting with his mother online, when they hadn’t spoken in so long.

Vargas’s film focuses on his life journey–from age 12, when he was quickly shuttled from the Philippines to Mountain View, California, to be raised by his grandparents to the moment in 2011 when he “came out” as undocumented in a big New York Times Magazine essay. It brings the viewer to the present day, when he finally reconnects with his mother. He never intended to bring his personal story into the mix–the original idea was to make a Waiting for Superman-type movie about the DREAM Act–but ultimately realized that his experiences humanized the larger issues.

Besides his mother’s Facebook lament, the other most emotional moment in the movie happens when Vargas and his mother Skype for the first time. It seems a little awkward at first (Vargas avoided his mother for much of his life) but ends with the hint of more interactions to come–and in fact, Vargas and his mother now Skype regularly.

In the Q&A after the movie, Vargas mentioned that he would love to work with Skype on a partnership, presumably for his Define American advocacy project. He’s certain that many other immigrants have had similar experiences connecting with their families. Facebook has also played a big part, he said, in bringing the undocumented community together, providing a space for conversations and advice. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has long been an advocate for immigration reform, these days through his controversial FWD.us initiative.

What will really be exciting, Vargas said, is when “the folks who have these experiences create the technology.” At the screening, a group of computer science students from Hartnell College in the heavily Hispanic community of Salinas, California, sitting in the audience provided a hint of that future.

And yes, in the end, Vargas accepted his mother’s Facebook request.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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