McALLEN — After days of showing support to the unaccompanied minors and volunteering at Sacred Heart Church in downtown McAllen, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and immigrant activist Jose Antonio Vargas began receiving text messages and tweets from friends from around the country.
Many of the messages were of support but also of concern for Vargas — a man without legal immigration status in the U.S. — on just how he planned on leaving the Rio Grande Valley. He’d come to McAllen to participate in a vigil outside the downtown immigrant aid center at Sacred Heart Church in support of their cause.
Vargas had already written about his personal predicament, speculating on whether the U.S. Border Patrol would let him past their interior checkpoints in a recent Politico story that went viral.
Tuesday morning, the agents wouldn’t let him pass. After spending several hours in Border Patrol custody, he was released with a notice to appear in immigration court — just as thousands of others who have recently crossed the Rio Grande without authorization.
A convoy of fellow immigration advocates and others without legal status accompanied Vargas to McAllen-Miller International Airport before 8 a.m. Tuesday.
There, Vargas attempted to board a flight to Los Angeles. His supporters stood across the street, wearing T-shirts with the words “Trapped” on the front.
Vargas walked to the security checkpoint, where a Transportation Security Administration agent and a U.S. Border Patrol agent routinely screen passengers on all outbound commercial flights. Unlike other domestic airports, Border Patrol also checks passengers, regardless of their final destination.
After a brief exchange, Vargas was handcuffed and escorted to a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle waiting outside the terminal.
Agents transported him to the Border Patrol station in McAllen, where journalists and supporters gathered Tuesday afternoon to see if he’d be released. By late in the afternoon, word spread that he was let go, but his exact location was being kept quiet.
In 2011, Vargas revealed his immigration status in an essay published by The New York Times Sunday Magazine, where he detailed how he came to the United States with falsified documents at age 12. He went on to become a reporter atThe Washington Post, where he shared a Pulizer Prize with the newspaper’s staff for its coverage of the Virginia Tech campus shootings.
Vargas left the newspaper in 2009 to work for The Huffington Post. In 2011, he launched Define American, an advocacy group that aims to heighten awareness of immigration issues that affect over 11 million people who came to the country illegally.
As soon as word spread that Vargas had been arrested, DREAMers and members of the Minorities Affairs Council, who had staged a peaceful protest across the street from the airport, scrambled into their cars and followed the Border Patrol truck to the McAllen facility where they staged another peaceful protest across the street.
They chanted, ‘El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!’ (The people united will never be defeated.)
One-by-one, they spoke to reporters about their own struggles living in the Valley as without legal immigration status.
They were anxious for updates from Border Patrol or from Define American. They wondered if Vargas would be deported.
Border Patrol agent Chris Cabrera, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council’s local chapter, said Vargas should have known he would be detained at the security checkpoint.
“I know he talks a lot about being illegal and being here, seemed like he was flaunting it. You can’t you come to a border community and expect the law to not be applied to you,” Cabrera said. “He seems a little naive. If you’re illegal — regardless of a Pulitzer or not — if you’re illegal and try to pass the checkpoint, you’re going to get picked up.”
Ira Mehlman, national spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform — an anti-illegal immigration group — said this issue is political.
“I think this is clearly an election issue, you have a situation where the border is out of control, tens of thousands of people streaming in here and the Obama administration can’t figure out what to do, but more importantly it is a situation they helped create, their own policy says come to the U.S. illegally and we’re not going to enforce our laws as long as you don’t commit a serious crime, we’re not going to make any effort to remove you,” Mehlman said.
Mehlman said immigration policies like deferred action for childhood arrivals, which allows some immigrants brought illegally as children a pathway to legal status, shows that the Obama administration seems unable or unwilling to do anything about illegal immigration.
Luis Maldonado, a member of the Minorities Affair Council protesting Tuesday, said he hoped that Vargas would have been able to fly back to New York. But he and his fellow members were aware he could be detained due to his immigration status.
Maldonado said what happened to Vargas happens to others without immigration status in the Valley and the United States regularly.
“I’m going to fight for him; we’re going to fight for him,” Maldonado said. “We’re trapped, if you go 15 minutes south of from here there’s the international bridge, if you go 45 minutes north, the Falfurrias check point, if you go an hour east, the Gulf of Mexico, if you go an hour west, there’s the Laredo-Cotulla check point, that’s how we’re trapped. We’re in a cage.”
A couple of hours after Vargas was arrested, Define American campaign director Ryan Eller said there were no new updates on Vargas’ status, only confirming that Vargas was being held at the McAllen Station. He declined to give the names of the attorneys who were representing Vargas.
Eller, a Baptist minister, said this was bigger than politics and that he and the organization were working with attorneys trying to secure Vargas’ release.
“This is not a left or right issue, this is not liberal or conservative issue, what we discovered here is that it’s not even a security issue, this an issue of wrong or right, this is an issue of humanity. Politicians will do what politicians always do, which is try to set themselves up, to follow their constituents and get re-elected to office,” Eller said.
“This is not going to go away, you cannot squash freedom and you cannot kill liberty and the folks here on the border are going to continue to organize.”
Staff writer Karen Antonacci contributed to this report.