Jose Antonio Vargas, winner of the 2013 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling and a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, was detained at Texas's McAllen-Miller International Airport on Tuesday as he attempted to board a plane after a reporting trip to the US-Mexico border. He was released by authorities Tuesday night.
Vargas has used his visibility to shed light on the plight of undocumented people in the US. An activist, filmmaker, and journalist for the Washington Post, Politico, and the Huffington Post, among others, he's said that "with [my] kind of privilege comes a kind of responsibility." In 2011 Vargas revealed that he was an undocumented American in an article for the New York Times Magazine; until now, his media visibility has probably helped serve as a shield against deportation.
Yet his privileged position did not rid him of the fetters that undocumented people face in the US. Because of his immigration status, last week Vargas suddenly found himself stuck in McAllen, Texas, a border town where he was reporting on undocumented children. Immigration checkpoints set up around the town as well as in neighboring airports made leaving McAllen a dangerous gamble.
"In the last 24 hours I realize that, for an undocumented immigrant like me, getting out of a border town in Texas — by plane or by land — won't be easy," wrote Vargas in an article for Politico Magazine on Friday. "It might, in fact, be impossible."
As his detention shows, he was right. Vargas, like many undocumented people, suddenly finds himself trapped within what the Huffington Post calls a "Bill-of-Rights-free strip," citing an ACLU fact sheet on "Constitution free zones."
Vargas was originally in McAllen to visit the immigrant children's detention centers, until he found himself unable to leave. "The visit to the shelter was intense and sobering, watching small kids fight for their lives with nothing more than their spirits," he wrote.
As the Huffington Post rightly points out, Vargas's forced immobility and subsequent detention counters the Republican discourse about our porous borders: in fact, "residents of the Rio Grande Valley usually encounter checkpoints every few miles, and it was common to see Border Patrol and state trooper cars while driving on the highway." The crackdown at borders hasn't spared children, as authorities place them in squalid and overcrowded facilities rather than offering care. Excessive use of force by Border Patrol agents is overwhelming: some have physically and sexually assaulted unaccompanied migrant children and agents have killed at least forty-five people since 2005, in abuses that have been documented by PBS's Need to Know in partnership with The Investigative Fund.
Treating undocumented immigrants as criminals has been widely criticized, especially since many are seeking asylum. As revealed by ThinkProgress, 58 percent of the children "cited 'international protection needs'" as reasons for immigration, fleeing unendurable living conditions in their countries.
For Jose Antonio Vargas, the answer lies in his project Define American, which aims to raise issues of immigration reform and redefine Americanness. Vargas's groundbreaking documentary film, Documented, released in May, tells his story as he crosses paths with a few of the estimated 11.5 million undocumented people in the United States. It encourages viewers to think beyond the notion of "illegal immigrant" — and to recognize undocumented Americans.
But it will be a while before the US government catches up. The notion that an immigrant can be considered "illegal" strips millions of their most basic human rights and is best captured in a song by a group of undocumented activists in McAllen, transcribed by Vargas in Politico Magazine:
"No me digas illegal"/Don't call me illegal
"Porque eso no lo soy"/Because I am not
"llegal son sus leyes"/Illegal are your laws
"Y por eso no me voy"/And that's why I'm not leaving