A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist thought of as America’s most high profile undocumented immigrant was detained by US border patrol agents in Texas on Tuesday, after travelling to the state to report on the surge of child migrants crossing into the US from Mexico.
Jose Antonio Vargas, who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 essay for the New York Times Magazine and has campaigned for immigration reform ever since, was released after several hours in custody with a notice to appear before an immigration judge.
Born in the Philippines, Mr Vargas was sent by his mother to live with his grandparents in California in 1993, when he was 12 years old. Now aged 33, he still holds no formal status in the US.
Mr Vargas, who is one of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, had been in Texas for several days to report on the unfolding humanitarian crisis there.
More than 52,000 children, many unaccompanied by adults, have crossing the border from Mexico since last October. Most are refugees fleeing endemic violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
President Obama recently asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the crisis. Monday saw the first of many flights carrying a group of migrant Honduran women and children back to Honduras, as the Obama administration steps up the deportation process.
Travelling with a valid Philippines passport but no US visa, Mr Vargas was arrested and handcuffed as he tried to board a flight to Houston at McAllen-Miller airport on Tuesday morning. It was the first time he had ever been detained by US immigration officials. Campaigners quickly mobilised on his behalf on Twitter and on the ground, with several supporters mounting a protest outside the Border Patrol station where Mr Vargas was being held.
Following his release that afternoon, Mr Vargas released a statement, saying: “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… 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?”
As a reporter for The Washington Post in 2008, Mr Vargas shared a Pulitzer Prize for his part in the coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Last year, he directed a documentary film, Documented, about his experiences and those of other undocumented immigrants. He also launched the “Define American” campaign for immigration reform.
In 2012 the Obama administration said it would halt deportations and offer work permits to undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who, like Mr Vargas, had spent much of their lives in the US.
President Obama is presently weighing an expansion of those protections, though his Republican critics claim that his policies have merely encouraged more Central American parents to send their children to the US, thus exacerbating the border crisis.
Mr Vargas has travelled to more than 40 US states in recent years, using only his Philippines passport as ID, without ever being questioned by officials about his status, despite his very public activism.
Writing for Politico last week, he admitted: “The visibility, frankly, has protected me.”
His lawyers said it was unlikely that he would face deportation following his arrest.
The Department of Homeland Security said it had released him because he posed no security threat.
“Mr. Vargas has not previously been arrested by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] nor has the agency ever issued a detainer on him or encountered him,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a statement.
“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the agency’s resources to promote border security and to identify and remove criminal individuals who pose a threat to public safety and national security.”