Handcuffs, then freedom, for immigration activist

Posted: July 17, 2014

THREE YEARS AGO, Jose Antonio Vargas was a 30-year-old with the kind of career that most young journalists only dream of - a share of a Pulitzer Prize with the Washington Post, a coveted byline in the New Yorker - when he decided to risk everything on the truth.

The former Daily News intern confessed in a magazine article that he's been in the United States as an undocumented immigrant - brought here without papers from the Philippines at age 12 - and then announced he was leaving journalism to fight as an activist for the rights of some 12 million people who share his plight.

"Yeah, I'm fearful just like any undocumented person is fearful," Vargas told the Daily News in 2012, when asked if he was afraid of arrest and deportation. "I've always been looking over my shoulder. I've always had this nagging feeling that someone could pick me up."

The day that Vargas long feared almost came yesterday.

The 33-year-old head of the immigrant-rights group Define American, arguably the nation's most visible voice for the undocumented, was detained and then led away in handcuffs by the U.S. Border Patrol at the airport in the South Texas border city of McAllen as he attempted to board a flight for Los Angeles.

But about nine hours later - after calls for his release from prominent officials such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio - he was let go by the federal agency. He was given a ticket to appear before an immigration judge.

"I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of South Texas and across the country," Vargas said in a statement. "Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family."

The catch-and-release put a new twist on a story that was already dominating the news - the flood of child migrants from violence-torn Central America that have been crossing America's southern border, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where McAllen is located.

It was that ongoing crisis that attracted Vargas to the region last Thursday to attend a vigil for the child migrants organized by another activist group called United We Dream. Only after he arrived in the border city, Vargas told reporters and wrote on social media over the weekend, did he realize that Border Patrol checkpoints - at the airport and on major highways leaving McAllen - would make it risky for him to leave.

"I feel stupid," Vargas wrote in a text to a reporter at the Washington Post, according to the newspaper. He said he's traveled to some 43 states using only his Philippine passport, and Transportation Security Administration agents had never questioned his immigration status.

But he reportedly said he was unaware of the heavily militarized situation in and around McAllen, which the American Civil Liberties Union once called a "Constitution-free zone" because the Border Patrol is allowed to randomly check for papers as far as 100 miles inland.

"About to go thru security at McAllen Airport," Vargas posted yesterday on Twitter about 9 a.m. "I don't know what's going to happen."

He also posted a picture of his Philippine passport and the U.S. Constitution. Video and photos posted by reporters and activists from the airport seemed to show that Vargas was initially OK'd to board by the TSA but that he was detained after a Border Patrol agent asked to see a visa.

Vargas had won kudos for his work here in Philadelphia, as a summer intern for the Daily News in 2001. Officials with the paper have said that they did not check the intern's immigration status and that he supplied a valid Social Security number, which Vargas revealed years later was obtained using a fake Philippine passport.

He came to the United States when he was 12, when his mother put him on a plane to live with relatives. Vargas said he didn't know he was not in the country legally until he was 16, when he applied for a driver's license and the worker told him that his green card was fake, adding, "Don't come back here!"

In the years that followed, Vargas went to college and landed a string of good jobs, occasionally using subterfuge to hide his immigration problem. It was three years ago, he said, that news reports about college-age immigration protesters called Dreamers persuaded him to reveal his secret and shift course. He's spoken out at numerous forums and was featured in a recent CNN film, "Undocumented."

"No one brought and raised here as a child should be expelled for being undocumented. #ReleaseJoseAntonioVargas," a Democratic congressman from Florida, Rep. Alan Grayson, posted on Twitter yesterday. New York's de Blasio also issued a statement that "I stand in solidarity" with Vargas because of his record of activism.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com

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