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Jose Antonio Vargas, the Nation’s “Most Famous Undocumented Immigrant,” Has Been Released From Detention in McAllen

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Jose Antonio Vargas made a mistake when he went to McAllen to report on the border crisis. As perhaps the nation’s most well-known undocumented immigrant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who famously outed himself as undocumented in 2011 in the pages of the New York Times Magazine and subsequently directed the documentary film Documented, was relatively safe when traveling to and from airports on the coast with only his passport from the Phillipines. But when he went to the Rio Grande Valley last Thursday, he recognized after he arrived that he was in a whole new world. As Vargas wrote for Politico last week

Tania Chavez, an undocumented youth leader from the Minority Affairs Council, one of the organizers of the vigil, asked me the same question: “How will you get out of here?” Tania grew up in this border town. As the day wore on, as the reality of my predicament sunk in, Tania spelled it out for me: You might not get through airport security, where Customs and Border Protection (CPB) also checks for IDs, and you will definitely not get through the immigration checkpoints set up within 45 miles of this border town. At these checkpoints, you will be asked for documentation. (“Even if you tell them you’re a U.S. citizen, they will ask you follow-up questions if they don’t believe you,” Tania told me.)

For the past few days that Vargas was in the Valley, he was essentially Schrödinger’s Immigrant: He wasn’t stuck, so long as he didn’t actually attempt to leave. As long as he was in McAllen minding his own business, no one would question him, but the moment he attempted to pass through airport security or the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias, he could find himself not just sent back to McAllen, but cuffed and detained. Attempting to leave would be a big risk.

This morning, Vargas attempted to fly out of McAllen-Miller International Airport. This was the result:

Before Vargas was detained, it was fair to question whether this was a legitimate threat to his personal freedom, or if he was writing about his predicament as a way to call attention to the plight of other undocumented residents of the Valley. Had he really unwittingly entered into a situation in which he could be deported, or was he just making a point? Regardless of intentions, this morning Vargas was detained at the checkpoint in the airport before getting on a flight to Houston. He was released later in the afternoon, according to a statement on his Facebook page, but additional details weren’t given. 

Vargas, like many undocumented residents of this country, was brought here as a child, and has no deep ties to the country in which he was born. His fame and his connections may have played a part in his release, but for other undocumented people in the Valley and elsewhere, the challenges of passing through an interior Border Patrol checkpoint—whether at the airport or on the highway—remain. 

Usually, when these checkpoints make the news, they do so because a celebrity got busted on I-10 in Sierra Blanca. Willie Nelson, Fiona Apple, Nelly, Snoop Dogg, etc. Apollo 13 screenwriter Al Reinert wrote about his experience of being arrested in Sierra Blanca for Texas Monthly last August. But while famous U.S. citizens who are unaware that dogs will sniff out any joints they happen to have on their person might bring the checkpoints to the headlines, the lives of people whose movements are restricted by them are the more interesting story. 

That includes both undocumented residents like Vargasas well as full U.S. citizens whose status Border Patrol agents regard with suspicion. I went to Sierra Blanca last spring to write about the checkpoint for the Texas Observer and spoke with Hudspeth County Commissioner Wayne West about the checkpoint, who was remarkably frank about the challenges it presented to his constituents

That drive between Sierra Blanca and El Paso is one that everybody in Hudspeth County knows well. The Exxon station in Sierra Blanca sells a few staples, and there’s a small supermarket in Van Horn, 35 miles to the east, but if a Sierra Blancan needs to stock up on a month’s worth of groceries—or attend a movie theater, or buy a computer, or try on new school clothes—they have to drive the 88 miles west to El Paso. To get back home, they have to answer questions from a Border Patrol agent at the checkpoint, and those interactions can be unpleasant, even downright antagonistic. “It can get pretty vulgar,” West confirms.

There are, of course, questions about the constitutionality of the checkpoints. The result of these questions is a whole cottage industry of libertarian-leaning YouTube users uploading videos of themselves refusing to answer questions at the checkpoints, with varying degrees of success. 

It’s certainly true that Vargas, had he chosen to drive to San Antonio to catch a flight at an airport with less of a DHS presence, could have declined to answer questions about his citizenship at the checkpoint in Falfurrias—people are under no obligation to answer the questions of the officers who stop them—but his ability to continue his trip would have been limited to his ability to convince the officer at his window that he was a U.S. citizen practicing civil disobedience, rather than an undocumented immigrant trying to pass through 75 miles north of the border. 

There are valid questions to ask regarding Vargas’ trip. The reason so many people are troubled by the interior checkpoints is that it’s bizarre to have to prove your citizenship to get from one part of the United States to another, but it does strain credulity a bit to believe that a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who is one of the leading experts on immigration issues in the U.S. has never heard of them. And regardless of whether he was familiar with the checkpoints before the trip, Vargas certainly chose to call attention to the fact that he was in the Valley and would be passing through a checkpoint by publishing his essay for Politico while he was still down there, as opposed to, say, writing it while he was on the airplane. 

But whether Vargas chose to risk arrest deliberately, in order to bring light to the situation that less-famous undocumented residents of the U.S. face as part of their daily life, or if he was legitimately placed in this situation because he didn’t know that the checkpoints existed, is a moot point, ultimately. He spent time in custody and has since been released, but the questions and challenges of the border, and the immigration status of nearly 12 million people in the U.S., are much more complicated than the situation involving one person at the airport this morning. 

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

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