Jose Antonio Vargas: Handling of US Border Crisis Is 'Tragic on Many Levels'

Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and activist who was detained as an undocumented immigrant by customs agents in Texas, has been allowed to leave the heavily patrolled border area, though he must still present himself in front of an immigration judge.

Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter who unveiled himself in 2011 as an undocumented immigrant, was held at a Texas border patrol station for about eight hours on Tuesday before being released with a notice to appear before a judge at an unspecified later date. In a telephone interview with the Guardian he said: “I have no idea what will happen to me. I have to talk to my lawyers to figure out what this means for me personally.”

Reaction to Vargas’s detention in McAllen, Texas, has been as polarized as the heated debate over the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have travelled from Central America to the US border, who Vargas had gone to visit. Detractors accused him of having deliberately had himself detained as a “foolish stunt”.

But in his Guardian interview Vargas insisted that he had no prior intention to be detained and had only become aware that he was in legal jeopardy when he had already entered the border region. “People have said this was a stunt, but I didn’t know that travelling in my own country was a stunt. I’ve been called the most high-profile undocumented immigrant in the country yet I’m still detained – think what is happening to the thousands of immigrants who aren’t high profile.”

He said that before his detention he had the opportunity to meet several undocumented children now in the custody of US border patrol. Commenting on their plight, he said: “I don’t think you can look in the eyes of these children and not know the kind of hell they’ve been through. I don’t think you can look at them in the eye and tell them they have to go back to where they came from.”

Vargas has made a series of short videos from the border area that he hopes will put the attitudes of the American people towards the incoming child immigrants in a different light. The first film, posted on YouTube, profiles a woman at a refugee shelter crafted out of a local Catholic church hall who volunteers every day to provide the children with food and clothing and reassure them that the worst for them is over. “To me, the generosity shown by volunteers like this woman is what defines America,” he said.

The arrival at the US border this year of more than 50,000 immigrant children, largely from Central America, has triggered a fiery debate within Washington. President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7bn in extra resources to deal with the crisis, but Republican leaders are threatening to withhold the funds unless the administration agrees to deport the children more speedily.

Vargas called the political debate “tragic on many levels”. He said the Republican leadership in Congress and the Obama administration were both guilty of having turned a humanitarian crisis into “political ping pong”.

Vargas arrived in the US from his native Philippines in 1993, aged 12, and was brought up by his grandparents, who were naturalized American citizens. He only realized that he himself lacked legal permission to reside in the country when at the age of 16 he went to get a driving license.

For many years he lived under the radar, completing his education and building a successful career as a journalist. In 2008, he was part of the Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Virginia Tech gun rampage.

Three years ago he decided to out himself as an undocumented immigrant, and switched from journalist to immigration campaigner. “I knew what I was getting myself into – I’m one of the 11 million people who are undocumented in America and my fate is tied to theirs. I don’t want special treatment or double standards.”

His arrest on Tuesday was the first time that he has been held by immigration and customs agents in more than two decades in the US. In a statement put out after his release, the Department of Homeland Security said he was low priority, adding that federal officers were “focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the agency’s resources to promote border security and remove criminal individuals who pose a threat to public safety and national security.”


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