Border Patrol Holds Immigration Activist Jose Antonio Vargas

UPDATE: Jose Antonio Vargas announced around 3:30pm Tuesday that he had been released. He shared the following statement.

“As an unaccompanied child migrant myself, I came to McAllen, Texas, to shed a light on children who parts of America and many in the news media are actively turning their backs on. But what I saw was the generosity of the American people, documented and undocumented, in the Rio Grande Valley.

"I’ve been released by Border Patrol. I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country. Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family. With Congress failing to act on immigration reform, and President Obama weighing his options on executive action, the critical question remains: how do we define American?"

The United States Border Patrol on Tuesday detained journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas, the country's highest-profile undocumented immigrant.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who grew up in Mountain View, spent several days by the U.S.-Mexico border reporting on the surge of child migrants in Texas. But his passport from the Philippines tipped off authorities as he tried to leave the McAllen-Miller airport this morning. Border agents stopped and cuffed him, according to the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim, who tweeted a picture of the incident:

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Vargas, who came out as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times Magazine story and later a TIME Magazine essay, wrote about his trip to the tiny border town of McAllen, Texas, for Politico last week:

Tania Chavez, an undocumented youth leader from the Minority Affairs Council ... asked me ... “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.)

Like most of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants, Vargas lacks any official U.S. identification. This was his last tweet before getting whisked away by authorities:

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Vargas was 12 when his mother sent him from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in Mountain View. Twenty-one years later, he still lacks formal status in the US.

The former Washington Post reporter directed his first film, Documented, and launched a campaign called "Define American" to illustrate the dysfunction of the nation's immigration policies. The documentary, which aired on CNN a few weeks ago, explores Vargas' own life and those of other undocumented immigrants in America.

Hundreds of people expressed outrage following his arrest Tuesday, lighting up Twitter with words of encouragement. Others weren't so sympathetic.

Though Vargas has traveled non-stop for the past few years to promote his work and speak out against current immigration policies, he was never detained. Still, he has said that being undocumented means living in fear.

"The visibility, frankly, has protected me," he wrote last week for Politico.

He flew to McAllen to promote the work of immigration reform groups and stand in solidarity with the hundreds of unaccompanied minors stranded at the nation's southern border. It wasn't until he arrived, he said, that he learned about the checkpoints and heightened security.

... I didn’t think twice about visiting the Texas border. 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. I’ve been flying everywhere across the country—what would make this trip different?

Worried about being held up, he stayed in the border town for several days before attempting to leave for a screening of his documentary in Los Angeles.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Vargas wrote.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Next time Mr. Vargas would do better to keep the focus of attention on his cause rather than on himself. Indeed, activists in other causes should be vigilant not to let the attention shift on to them — no matter how flattering the limelight might be.

  2. Mr. Vargas is in my country illegally. There are many people who would like to come to the U.S. and take advantage of our system of education, health care, welfare benefits as well as job opportunities. Mr. Vargas did not apply to enter legally–others have and are waiting patiently for their applications to be approved. Mr. Vargas should be sent to his country of origin. It makes no difference what he has achieved; he is here on false pretenses, and that makes him an undesirable prospect; he is a law breaker and a liar. Please, U.S. Courts, enforce our immigration laws and send this man home. His home is NOT the United States of America.

    • The land that is now called the USA was Native American territory until about 500 years ago. So, before Americans of European decent start pointing the finger at other illegal immigrants, they would do well to reflect on their own history as invaders.

      • At the time that Europeans were coming the Western Hemisphere, the prevailing political and economic cultures were ones of conquest and acquisition by conquest. This was practiced by every major power of the time and it was also practiced by the ‘native’ American tribes of the time who, themselves were not indigenous to North America and who routinely warred against, subjugated and enslaved weaker tribes. All this predated the formation of the United States and the European colonization. Furthermore, much of the colonization was by political exiles forced from their European homes on pain of death. At the time, there were, yes, territories, but no formalized boundaries, national borders, or treaties as we understand them today. And, at the time of its formation, the US became the only ‘Western’ power to enshrine the ethic of consent of the individual, private property ownership and capitalism and the pre-eminent form of wealth creation. It is also the first nation to attempt to institutionally and nationally abolish slavery, a pursuit which led to a war and which was almost universally opposed by (Southern) Democrats who (including President Woodrow Wilson) also opposed women’s suffrage, desegregation and the Civil Rights act of 1964, which was filibustered by Democrat Senator Robert Byrd who, in earlier times started a KKK unit and rose to the level of Exalted Cyclops in that organization which was created after the Civil War to be the militant wing of the Democrat Party.

        Today, we have international treaties and laws, well-defined national borders and laws governing immigration into this nation, none of which existed at the time the colonies were being formed. Also, notably, the laws regarding immigration in those countries from which illegal immigrants are coming are far more draconian in their punishments for law violations than are those in the USA.

      • The obvious lesson to be learned from the last five hundred years, is that the Native Americans suffered horribly when they were subjected to wholesale usurpation & disenfranchisement, via invasive mass immigration. Thus the American people of today should not want a similar fate to befall them, and their progeny.

    • Are you kidding? He was sent here by his parents at age 12. Officially, one has no legal capacity at age 12. You are going to blame a 12 year old for entering the country illegally? He has been living in the US for 21 years and he’s still unable to obtain a legal status. That’s due to our ridiculous outdated immigration laws. He has been waiting longer than most who wait in line and come through legal means. We need immigration reform to fix these and other inequities in the immigration system.

    • Health care? Really? Take advantage of the US healthcare system? Are you serious? Most legal or what you like to refer to as “illegal” immigrants go back to their country of origin to seek medical care. Perhaps you ought to befriend some of these “illegal” immigrants prior to making assumptions about them and the reasons they came here. Meanwhile you’re just making an ass of yourself.

  3. Sounds to me like he has already taken advantage of this country. The real question is “Has he paid any taxes into the system he has used?” This country is the home of the free not the home of someone wanting something for free!

    • Most if not all “illegal” immigrants pay taxes. Can you say the same about the rich and the corporations they run?

  4. So, what if anything do Mayoral candidates Liccardo and Cortese have to say about this?

    Is lawyer Liccardo in favor of complying with the law, or does he think that looking the other way is good public policy?

    Does “friend of the working man” Cortese think it’s a good idea to bring the world’s supply of unskilled, unemployed workers to San Jose to compete for local jobs with low skilled American citizens?

    Or, are we still stuck on the “my guy is not Chuck Reed” campaign?

    Or the “vote for Dave” campaign, which has never really explained what a “Dave” is?

  5. As an American who does work that “Americans just won’t do”, I’m affected every day by the competition from illegal aliens who will work for cheap. At no level, federal, state, or local, does my government uphold it’s responsibility to protect my interests. How would Jennifer Wadsworth or Zoe Lofgren like it if they showed up for work one day and found they’d been replaced by an illegal immigrant who would do their job for less money? Happens to me and millions of other Americans regularly. Our government fails us at THE fundamental level. And all the problems caused by this failure and all the government programs to “solve” those problems, are a colossal and inexcusable waste of our resources and an insurmountable obstacle to our ability to remain a great nation.
    And at the local level, both Cortese and Liccardo, are in fantasyland denial about San Jose’s future which will be defined not by their fancy utopian plans but by the impact of illegal immigration.

  6. Few things; 12 year old or not he did not enter the country illegally. Americans generally have no clue what immigration hurdles one has to jump through to come here. One simply cannot board an airplane without a visa. So he may have overstated his tourist visa and then become “illegal” once that expired. That was my case when as a 13 year old I came here. Another point, one which suburban bred, I’m sorry to say ignorant folks do not realize is that all illegal immigrants working for regular businesses PAY TAXES. In fact they pay taxes for services which are not given to th quite often as they are here “illegally”. At one point you could BUY yourself legal status. And so it was my case that after 4 years here illegally, throughout my high school years, I was able to pay for legal status. That ability is now gone. But I am a citizen now with whom all Americans would have no problem, little do they know I was one of those you would want to leave because I took your jobs. And that’s my last point, jobs are given to individuals willing to work for less due to the cut throat greedy capitals practices of trying to squeeze a dollar anywhere possible. So please don’t blame the illegal immigrant who pays the same amount in rent and food and gas but who works for less. Another American could and often does that too. But wait, you can’t just put them in a box of “illegal immigrant”. Illegal immigrant and often times simply Latino immigrants are simply scape goats. It’s a sad statement as current “Americans” who are the loudest are descendants of illegal immigrants themselves. Only
    Your government long ago killed off the true owners of this land so you needn’t worry about how it is you got here and got this land. Very convenient.

    • Whether Mr. Vargas – or you, or anyone else – entered the country illegally is only part of the issue here. HIs tourist visa expired and he should have returned to his nation of origin. That’s the law. Same thing for you. Again, it’s the law. If we had an Immigration Enforcement apparatus that was more efficient and committed to administering and applying the law in a truly fair and colorblind manner, neither you nor Mr. Vargas would have remained in this country beyond the term of expiration for your respective visas. And so, too, would it be true of the millions upon millions of those who have either illegally entered or illegally stayed in this country. That you were able to ‘buy’ legal status only further illustrates how diseased and corrupt the system is here in America.

      Speaking to the other issues: there is no ‘civil right’ to illegally immigrate and America owes nothing to those nations who benefit from illegal immigration by using it as a ‘pressure release valve’ to avoid owning responsibility for the gross and systemic corruption and dysfunction which exists in their own nations and which singularly drives illegal immigration. America also owes nothing to those who break the law to come or stay here. It is specious to argue that illegal immigrants do more benefit to our society than harm. If nothing else, among all the other things they bring along with them, they also bring a sense of entitlement which is a blight on the fabric of our nation. They also commit crimes and are incarcerated in gross disproportion to their population representation (, Hispanic illegal immigrants are far more likely to drive unlicensed, and drive drunk (see the AAA Foundations dual studies ‘Unlicensed to Kill, part 1 and part 2) have far lower educational achievement upon entry than their native-born peers, their progeny require far more educational resources than those peers born to citizens, consume far more in terms of government services (especially law enforcement and incarceration) and consume far more in terms of emergency room-based medical services where that is their primary form of health care, as opposed to less costly avenues such as with a G.P. or Family Medicine Practitioner.

      Some additional resources on the subject are as follows:

      If illegal immigrants truly did represent an overall net benefit to American Society, I would concede that there might be merit to an amnesty argument based on pragmatism, though i would take issue with the underlying principle of rewarding illegal behavior with a benefit to which literally billions of people aspire.

      Lastly, the argument that native-born Americans have no business combating illegal immigration because they, themselves are descended from illegal immigrants is a deeply flawed argument. While, on the one hand Native Americans have been grossly mistreated by the American Government, it is hugely inaccurate and incomplete to assert that modern Americans caused or benefited from illegal immigration. Firstly, those first ‘immigrants’ from Europe were actually exiles and political refugees. They had no knowledge of what they were going to encounter for the most part and many of them only came here because the alternative was death. Secondarily, there was no unified Native American nation. Rather, there were many many tribes who, almost universally, practiced acquisition by conquest. They accumulated wealth and resources by taking them from other tribes, often enslaving women and children after killing the men. These women and children were also traded to other tribes for goods and resources. Territories were fluid and changing, tribal boundaries were mutable. There were no codified laws regarding physical presence in territories and certainly no overall group of laws applying to a larger ‘Native American Nation’ governing something like immigration. It’s unreasonable to hold modern native-born or legally-naturalized Americas accountable for the national policies and laws which force the ancestors of some of them to leave their European homes at the behest or demand of their respective European governments, hundreds of years before America was even a nation, with it’s own laws, including those governing immigration.

  7. “This country is the home of the free not the home of someone wanting something for free!”

    You’re wrong there, Fred. Obama was elected and re-elected largely by folks who want all the free sh*t he promised.

  8. You have it backwards, WOW. Every woman with a problem pregnancy who can get to El Norte for pre natal and post natal treatment does so. MediCal is used by illegal immigrants, as well. But it is free only to the user. Someone always pays–hospitals , by overbilling insurance companies for treatmentfolks here legally to make up the difference, or the taxpayers. Most illegals here have low paying jobs and make so little they pay no taxes here.

  9. STARTTOTHINK: Many illegal immigrants work for cash “off the books” and pay no taxes. Many more who work “on the books” don’t make enough to pay taxes, other than sales taxes. Wake up and pull your head out of your &#*, and actually start to think.

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