Jose Antonio Vargas trumpeted that he was an undocumented immigrant for years. But authorities never apprehended him.
On Tuesday, U.S. Border Patrol agents detained the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-activist in McAllen, Texas, after he told them he was in the country illegally, officials said.
He was released on his own recognizance with a notice to appear before an immigration judge, the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement…
“I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country,” he said. “Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family.”
“What do you want to do with me?”
What do you want to do with us?
How do you define American?”
On behalf of 11 million undocumented immigrants like me — many of us Americans in all but papers — I asked those questions to the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2013, nearly two years after I publicly outed myself as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times Magazine.
Against the advice of lawyers, I wrote, in detail, what I had to do to live and survive in America: hide in plain sight as I worked as a journalist for more than a decade; lie on government forms to get jobs while paying taxes and contributing to Social Security (undocumented workers provide billions in both); grow estranged from my mother in the Philippines who put me on a plane to the United States in 1993. In outing myself, I risked everything and prepared myself for anything.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called for Vargas’ immediate release after his detention, saying he stood “in solidarity” with the writer and that his detention “shows how our immigrant enforcement agencies are failing to use their discretion and detaining longtime immigrants who do not pose a threat to our security.”
Supporters who carried signs demanding Vargas’ release said his detention felt symbolic for many of them.
“Jose Antonio Vargas has lived the struggle so many of us here have lived. At the end of the day, we’re all connected. We’re all dreamers,” said Roxana Menchaca, 21, a senior at a nearby university and a U.S. citizen, born to undocumented parents, who grew up on both sides of the border…
[T]hanks to loopholes in immigration security, he has been able to travel the country, using his passport from the Philippines. Last week, he headed to the heart of the border crisis in the Rio Grande Valley, ostensibly to highlight the plight of unaccompanied immigrant children.
I do not have a single U.S. government-issued ID. Like most of our country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, I do not have a driver’s license—not yet, at least. (Recently, California and Washington, D.C., passed laws granting licenses to their undocumented residents. Though New York City will start issuing municipal IDs to its undocumented population, the state of New York, where I currently live, does not issue driver’s licenses.) Identification aside, since outing myself in the New York Times Magazine in June 2011, and writing a cover story for TIME a year later, I’ve been the most privileged undocumented immigrant in the country. The visibility, frankly, has protected me. While hundreds of thousands of immigrants have been detained and deported in the past three years, I produced and directed a documentary film, “Documented,” which was shown in theaters and aired on CNN less than two weeks ago. I founded a media and culture campaign, Define American, to elevate how we talk about immigration and citizenship in a changing America. And I’ve been traveling non-stop for three years, visiting more than 40 states.
Of course, I can only travel within the United States and, for identification, when I fly I use a valid passport that was issued by my native country, the Philippines. But each flight is a gamble. My passport lacks a visa. If TSA agents discover this, they can contact CBP, which, in turn, can detain me. But so far, I haven’t had any problems, either because I look the way I do (“You’re not brown and you don’t look like a Jose Antonio Vargas,” an immigration advocate once told me), or talk the way I do—or because, as a security agent at John F. Kennedy International Airport who recognized me said without a hint of irony, “You seem so American.”
The lesson Vargas feels Americans should take away from his situation is that the border is secure, despite the crisis caused by tens of thousands of Central Americans now entering the United States. “#BORDERISSECURE — Wish I could scream that out loud,” Vargas wrote Saturday night as he linked to a Huffington Post report on his predicament.
There have been at least 57,000 illegal immigrants who have crossed the border since October of last year, and another 150,000 are estimated to do so next year. The number of illegal immigrant children flooding across the border spiked just after President Barack Obama enacted his temporary amnesty program for certain DREAMers in 2012, and many migrants interviewed said they made the journey to America believing they would be able to indefinitely remain in the United States – like Vargas has been able to – if they made it across the border.
Could one not make a case here that, were Vargas to enjoy the American protections he claims as his right, he has little choice but to do what he has done with his employment forms, his driving license, and so forth, and just flagrantly break the law? Maybe he could buy a gun in a state without background checks on private sales (this would be spectacularly illegal). Maybe he could pick one up on a street corner. And then he could carry it without permission. Not because he’s a lawbreaker, you understand, but because he has no choice. Because the original offense cancels out the others. Because he’s an “undocumented American,” and his rights are at stake. Sure, progressives have spent the last two decades attempting to increase the bureaucracy around the Second Amendment, not diminishing it. Sure, the Left devoutly hopes to force all 50 states to apply the federal background check system to all private transfers, too. Sure, it lauds those states in which this rule already obtains. Sure, it argues routinely that America is in desperate need of a system that makes sure that only those who are eligible are buying guns. But this is different — a loophole, if you will. We should just let it go.
Let’s go one stage further. What if our newly heat-packing Jose Antonio Vargas were stopped by police for driving with headphones on, but this time had a gun on his hip? What should we expect from this situation? Would the officer be required just to let him go? And if not, why not? We hear incessantly that any gun-control law passed in order to ensure public safety has to be applied to everyone or it is next to useless. Is that true or is it not? After all, the Left is so upset that America’s “gun safety” rules are a patchwork quilt precisely because it believes that any holes in the system render that system useless. Does this ideal not apply because we know that Jose Antonio Vargas doesn’t mean any harm? Indeed, should we expect the Left to rally around defending Jose’s gun from the rules? Or we would hope that the laws on the books would be enforced lest the very principle of them be turned into a joke?
The most recent scofflaw to rise to national prominence was not a progressive hero such as Vargas, but a rancher named Cliven Bundy, whose fight against the Bureau of Land Management became a brief cause célèbre on the Right. Bundy’s story was sympathetic and his philosophical case was strong, but I pushed back against him nevertheless. Why? Well, because legally he didn’t have a leg to stand on, and because there is nothing in the social compact that permits individuals to secede from the established order if it is not to their liking…
Watching the reactions to Vargas’s arrest, however, I am beginning to wonder if the progressive support for the rule of law was purely expedient. Alarmingly, many of those who endorsed my approach to the Bundy case seem to have rushed to Vargas’s side. Are we to take from this that America’s laws should be applied only to those we dislike? And if we are not, what precisely is the operating standard? Everyone, after all, can find a reason why their case is different. That’s why we write down the rules.
Once again, let us remember what happened here: This was not a matter of “priorities” or of “discretion.” ICE did not perform a midnight no-knock raid on Vargas’s apartment and actively remove him from America. Instead, a famous man elected to put himself in a position in which he was asked for papers that he does not possess. At one level, I really do feel sorry for him. But I do not feel sorry enough that I am willing to bless the wanton disregard of the rules. Celebrity or no celebrity, sympathy or no sympathy, this is a nation of laws and not of men. That goes for people the cool kids cherish, too.