Journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas was taken into custody and then released by Border Patrol in South Texas on Tuesday, fanning the flames of a fierce political debate about immigration across the country.
Vargas — arguably the best-known undocumented immigrant in the United States — was detained at the McAllen-Miller International Airport while trying to leave Texas after visiting a migrant shelter near the border. He was brought to a local Border Patrol station.
His high-profile detention is the latest in a worsening immigration crisis in South Texas. More than 57,000 unaccompanied children have been caught at the border since last October.
McAllen, 12 miles north of the Mexican border, has become a focal point of the immigration debate, as migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador flood the small city and challenge local relief efforts. Highways through the city are dotted with Border Patrol checkpoints, making it difficult to leave without being detected.
“I didn’t think twice about visiting the Texas border,” he wrote in Politico on July 11. “But I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and knew nothing about life as undocumented in a border town in Texas, where checkpoints and border patrol agents are parts of everyday life.”
Shortly before crossing a security checkpoint at the airport on Tuesday, Vargas tweeted a picture of his only form of ID, his Philippine passport, along with the Constitution.
According to the youth-led immigrant activist organization United We Dream, Vargas’ detention was not a deliberate media stunt.
For many undocumented immigrants, such an encounter with Border Patrol could mean prolonged detention or even deportation. Vargas, however, was released on his own recognizance in the early evening, a spokesperson for Border Patrol’s parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told Fusion in an email.
The spokesperson said that Vargas was processed at an area Border Patrol station and served with a notice to appear before an immigration judge.
After his release, Vargas emailed out a statement, as well. “I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country,” it read. “Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family.”
This wasn’t Vargas’ first encounter with authorities. He was arrested during a traffic stop in Minneapolis in 2012, but federal immigration officials opted not to detain him. Since then, it appears the 33-year-old has traveled by plane without issue.
Many people living within a 100-mile border zone are subject to “routine searches” by U.S. Border Patrol — a situation the American Civil Liberties Union has criticized as an infringement of constitutional rights.
President Obama has called the situation on the border an “urgent humanitarian situation” and called on Congress to provide $3.7 billion in additional funds to address the crisis. A pair of congressmen from Texas — Sen. John Cornyn (R) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) — introduced a bill on Tuesday that would allow quicker deportations of Central American children, but the legislation faces an uphill battle in both houses of Congress.
Vargas visited Fusion Live last December and talked about his organization, Define American, which was co-founded by Fusion’s Alicia Menendez (Watch a candid interview between Menendez and Vargas talking about his documentary “Documented” here)
“Documented,” which focuses on the struggles of being an undocumented immigrant in the United States premiered in CNN just last month.
This piece was updated at 8:25 p.m. to include statements from Jose Antonio Vargas and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Earlier today, Fusion debated whether or not the media coverage around Vargas would be good for the immigration debate. Here’s the conversation: