Just before he revealed his immigration status, Vargas began filming. He said he wanted to capture everything he was about to go through. He also set out to tell stories of those brought to the country illegally as children who would benefit from a path to permanent residency under the stalled U.S. DREAM Act.
"It is imperative that we remind people what is actually at stake and that we humanize as much as possible a highly political, highly partisan issue," Vargas said. "A film to me has the potential to not only change policy but to change people's minds and hearts."
Vargas now leads an advocacy group called Define American that is planning a campaign for immigration reform around the time the film is released.
Producers are also planning to release the documentary in theaters. Vargas wants to show it in Texas and other places grappling with a broken immigration system. This week, the film debuts at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, though Vargas can't attend because he can't leave the country.
Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and first president of Facebook, is the film project's lead funder and executive producer.
Amy Entelis, a senior vice president at CNN who oversees the film unit, said Vargas takes the immigration story out of the context of a Washington political battle and instead "makes that story very pointedly human." CNN won't be advocating one side or the other in the immigration debate, she said.
In the film, Vargas retraces his migration from age 12 when his mother put him on a plane to California. He learned he didn't have immigration papers when he was 16. For the film, Vargas sent a camera back to the Philippines to interview his mother, whom he hasn't seen in 20 years.
In another scene, Vargas calls immigration officials to ask why he hasn't been deported. He is told they cannot comment.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Vargas went to a campaign event in Iowa for Mitt Romney, a scene included in the film. He held a sign that read: "I am an American w/o papers." Others attending the event didn't understand why Vargas could not gain legal status with all his accomplishments.
"Immigration is the most controversial yet least understood issue in America," he said. "This film, I think, embraces the complexity of the issue."
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