Are You Really Surprised Undocumented Activist Jose Antonio Vargas was Busted at the Border?

Photo: Ryan Grim/The Huffington Post

As of this moment, Jose Antonio Vargas is in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas. If you’re familiar at all with Vargas and his status as the country’s most famous undocumented immigrant, there’s a chance you wonder why it took this long for him to finally be detained by the government. This isn’t to say he’s an especially bad person or that he’s a threat to national security, only that he is, like it or not, breaking the law and has been for years — his enhanced profile as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist notwithstanding.

Vargas flew to McAllen to take part in a protest of the growing crisis at the U.S./Mexico border. McAllen is home to a shelter where thousands of unaccompanied children are currently being held, part of a recent influx of immigrants who crossed the border illegally looking for a new home in the United States. Along with a group called United We Dream, Vargas had planned to call attention to the issues facing these immigrants, but once he was there he realized that the border town of McAllen is essentially surrounded on all sides by U.S. Border Patrol check points. Vargas, as someone with no legal documentation — he carries only his passport from the Philippines and a copy of the U.S. Constitution with him — was trapped and faced the very real possibility of being arrested and processed for deportation. This morning, after what were no doubt plenty of phone calls back and forth to friends outside McAllen, he tried to make it through the town’s airport to catch a flight to Los Angeles. He didn’t make it.

Since Vargas revealed himself to be in the United States illegally, in a New York Times essay, he’s traveled the country as an activist and advocate for immigrants’ rights issues. He’s testified on Capitol Hill and has recently produced and directed a two-hour-long CNN special, Documented, in which he asks people straight-up, “What do you think should be done with me?” In between that, he’s gone to the Super Bowl, appeared on talk shows, and basically, while arguably always under the threat of deportation, has lived a pretty decent life in the United States. He claims that his entire existence here is meant to force Americans to confront the problem immigrants now face — and he’s right when he says that something about our national immigration policy has to change. What we’re doing now isn’t working, and certainly Vargas’s attempt to put a human face on the crisis is laudable.

Unfortunately, one problem remains for Jose Antonio Vargas: he’s still in the country illegally. He’s spent the past three years openly flouting the law and flaunting his status as an undocumented immigrant. And while it can be argued that he’s done quite a bit of good by bringing attention to the complexities, absurdities, and moral ambiguities of our current system — and the desperate people hamstrung because of them — even he recognizes that he’s violating the law. He publicly incriminated himself in 2011 and seems to have spent the time since basically daring the government to do something about it. By traveling to a place like McAllen and then trying to walk through a Border Patrol checkpoint without the proper documentation, he was treated no differently than anyone else would have been in his position. Yes, Vargas is a journalist and a celebrity, but he’s also been breaking the law for decades and has made no effective attempt to in any way remedy that situation.

The U.S. government was never going to just swoop in and arrest Vargas because to do so would be a PR debacle, but when Vargas left them with no choice what exactly were they supposed to do: completely ignore his undocumented status and pay attention only to his status as an activist and cultural figure? If we’re truly a nation of laws and not men, that would’ve been an unacceptable proposal. He’s made it known that he’s in the country illegally, has the lack of paperwork to prove it, and got busted at the border. While the overall debate is incredibly complex, what’s happening to Vargas right now isn’t. He’s breaking the law as it sits on the books right now and got taken into custody for it.

If he weren’t Jose Antonio Vargas, this wouldn’t even be news. Maybe that’s a tragedy or an injustice, one he’s longed to expose from the beginning, but it’s also a fact at the moment.

Update: Vargas has been released, which leaves the dilemma he creates simply by being free very much unanswered.