How could succeed in spite of itself

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 6, 2013

From The News Desk

Last night at the San Francisco premiere of his new documentary "Documented," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas called immigration the "most controversial but least understood topic in America."

You could say the same thing of his hosts from the tech world.

His film was executive produced by Sean Parker, among others, and the event was put on by the embattled, a group which we last saw in a "no comment" defensive crouch after some high-profile missteps, even more high profile defections and acid words on its tactics from the likes of Elon Musk, David Sacks, Josh Miller, Ken Lerer, and others. This was the group's first San Francisco event, according to the invitation.

The Mark Zuckerberg-supported political organization is led by the very controversial Joe Green, and both made opening remarks last night. And just to add a dash more polarizing to the stage, now-fired Groupon founder Andrew Mason also joined a panel discussion on immigration after the film. It was like a competition to see how many controversial people could fit on one stage. It's a wonder Mark Pincus didn't waltz out of the audience to join them.

That said, it was all in front of a friendly crowd full of people all there to support immigration reform that ranged from tech heavy weights like Ron Conway and Pincus to day laborers. The mission of is not just to give out more H-1Bs or startup visas but to establish comprehensive immigration reform. In the opening remarks and panel after the fact, the message was loud and clear that didn't want to compromise on that issue. Not mentioned were other issues like gun control and the environment that it has compromised on in the name of putting all its eggs in the immigration basket.

Such wide-spread misgivings about the tactics of aside, it's hard to root against their intentions, particular watching the stirring documentary by Vargas. Whether you agree with the way they've gone about it, has picked a noble fight, and Vargas's story drove home how noble. I'd defy anyone to watch the film and root against -- or at least the group's stated goals.

In "Documented," Vargas tells his own story as a Filipino immigrant brought to this country when he was twelve years old, with no idea he was illegal until he went to apply for a driver's license at 16. (Illegal was the word his grandfather used at the time; Vargas has worked hard to eradicate it from the vocabulary.) As a gay man, marriage wasn't an option for legal citizenship -- that had been his grandfather's plan. So Vargas secretly rose through the journalism industry's ranks, lying about his status to get jobs, constantly in fear that he'd be found out. In 2011, he decided to "come out" as undocumented in a New York Times Magazine essay and went around the country having conversations with people about how varied the 11 million person population of undocumented immigrants are in America.

Vargas is an ace story teller -- not only in print but on camera. Last night, he spoke about his hesitation to make the documentary's story his own, but it was unquestionably effective. Most touching was the story arc about Vargas's internal conflict with the fact that his mother sent him to America to live with his grandparents, the fact that he hadn't seen her in twenty years, that he couldn't see her in person until his status was resolved, and what different worlds they lived in. The heavy emotion of a scene where his mother cried in her kitchen in Manilla lamenting that her son wouldn't even accept her as a friend on Facebook was only cut by the unintentional humor of the line "It's just Facebook!" given who was putting the event on.

Even more than documentaries like "An Inconvenient Truth" or even "Waiting for Superman," Vargas courageously puts a human face on a story that many people think they know. Repeatedly in the film, Vargas would confront people who felt all illegals should go home and explain that he had no path to citizenship, that he was brought here by no choice of his own, and that he has paid taxes since he was 18 years old. They start to dissemble and say things like "Well, you're one of the okay ones..." and as their objections start to crumble, it becomes clear that the whole immigration debate is more nuanced than most people think.

Of course, in most corners of Silicon Valley, you don't have to sell the idea of immigration reform. But many tech leaders do need be sold on Zuckerberg's lobbying group. Getting behind a story as likable and noble as Vargas's was a smart PR move -- and will hopefully help its mission to bring about real change on an important issue.

[Image courtesy of Generation Progress]