Instead of bringing attention to child migrant crisis, activist made himself the story.
Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this column misstated the city Jose Antonio Vargas was en route to as he was detained by immigration officials.
Maybe this was bound to happen sooner or later. Jose Antonio Vargas, arguably the most famous undocumented immigrant in the USA, was detained today by immigration officials in McAllen, Texas, when he attempted to board a plane en route to Los Angeles without proper documentation. A picture of him in handcuffs has gone viral on social media, resulting in a Twitter campaign — #IStandWithJose — to draw attention to his plight.
Vargas, who was later released, is a tremendous journalist who has been an outstanding voice for undocumented immigrants. However, inserting himself into the child migrant crisis might not be the ideal way to help the thousands of children languishing in Department of Homeland Security detention — or to pursue his broader goal of promoting immigration reform.
Vargas was sent to the USA illegally as a child by his Filipino relatives, and did not find out he was undocumented until he was 16. He later wrote about his experiences as an undocumented American for The New York Times Magazine and in a cover story for Time Magazine. He has testified before Congress on the need for immigration reform. Still, he may be testing the limits of his activism by getting himself detained in Texas.
In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Vargas acknowledged the risk of getting stuck in Texas because of his immigration status. "The feeling of being stuck and trapped by our broken immigration system is very familiar to undocumented people like me," he said. "But it's even more pronounced for undocumented immigrants who live in the border. And now I'm trapped like they are."
Yet Vargas was not trapped like other undocumented immigrants are. He was able to rally some of his 45,000 Twitter followers to press for his speedy release, and can continue to pen long-form articles about his immigration problems in Politico. Unlike other undocumented immigrants, Vargas is well known to virtually every major media outlet in the country. His unique standing gives him a platform — even while in detention — that no other undocumented immigrant can claim.
Vargas' detention does not reflect too well on his personal judgment. His decision to go to the border was not necessary to draw attention to the child migrant crisis; that deplorable situation is already receiving saturation coverage. If he was indeed going to McAllen to report on the border crisis, he should have taken pains to ensure that he could travel without incident.
After all, one of the primary rules of journalism is that a reporter should not make himself part of the story. Unintentionally, Vargas is even playing into the narrative that the current border crisis is about illegal immigration, rather than it being a humanitarian crisis.
During the few hours that Vargas had been detained, Latino advocacy organizations and other immigrant groups demanded that he be released as soon as possible. Although they were right that Vargas should be freed, consider that his personal situation is temporarily dominating the headlines. Plus, Vargas has given the Obama administration one more unnecessary immigration headache. By releasing him quickly, it might smack of special treatment. This distraction was the last thing the administration needed as President Obama prepares to roll out his executive action on immigration in August.
Certainly, there is a case to be made that Vargas should not have been taken into custody. Under the terms of the Obama administration's 2011 "prosecutorial discretion" memo, immigration enforcement actions are supposed to prioritize violent criminals — which Vargas certainly is not. Still, he was at an airport attempting to board a plane without a government-issued ID. This was knowingly risky behavior, and he paid the price — if only temporarily. And Transportation Security Administration officials who turned him over to the Border Patrol were simply doing their jobs.
The child migrant crisis at the border should not be a story about Jose Antonio Vargas. This is a story that still cries out for a compassionate government response, not a distracting media sideshow.
Raul Reyes is an attorney in New York and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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