By Thuy Vu

Jose Antonio Vargas testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 'Comprehensive Immigration Reform,' February, 2013 Hill in Washington DC. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
Jose Antonio Vargas testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on ‘Comprehensive Immigration Reform’ in February, 2013. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

You might call him the accidental immigration activist. After attending school in Mountain View and graduating from San Francisco State University, Jose Antonio Vargas had a successful career as a journalist. He worked at the Huffington Post, the New Yorker and the Washington Post, where he shared a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.

Through it all, he hid a secret. He was in this country illegally.

In 2011, Vargas revealed his status in a New York Times Magazine essay and has since become an immigration advocate. His new film, “Documented,” chronicles his life story.

Vargas’ mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the Bay Area when he was 12. He learned he wasn’t living in the country legally only when he was 16 and tried to apply for a driver’s license. He hasn’t seen his mother in person in 20 years.

In an interview for KQED NEWSROOM, Vargas told me he decided to make the documentary to highlight how it feels to live in this country without papers. “I wanted to humanize this political debate in the most compelling way I could,” he said. “What does it mean to pledge allegiance to a flag since you’re 12, a flag that you find out doesn’t belong to you?”

Vargas’ plight has drawn many big-name supporters, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the immigration reform advocacy group FWD.us. He’s also attracted many critics who contend he’s illegal, has repeatedly broken the law and should be deported. Vargas says he’s still here because “there’s been silence from the government. I haven’t heard from them.”

Immigration reform is stalled in Congress, but the issue continues to make headlines. This week, the federal government rejected California’s initial design for driver’s licenses that would be offered to undocumented immigrants beginning next year. Meanwhile, Florida is expected to soon join 19 other states to make in-state college tuition available to undocumented youth.

Vargas believes immigration reform will ultimately happen not through Congress, but state by state. He also doesn’t want to just change the politics of the movement, but the culture around it, by transforming how undocumented immigrants are perceived in pop culture.

“The immigration conversation has been stuck in the Mexico-Latino-border situation for so long,” he says. “How do I break that and transcend that conversation?”

Vargas’ film, “Documented,” opens on May 16 in theaters in San Francisco, Berkeley and Sebastopol.

KQED NEWSROOM is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.

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