Papers, Please

After visiting McAllen, Texas, to participate in a vigil, Jose Antonio Vargas realized that, “for an undocumented immigrant like me, getting out of a border town in Texas—by plane or by land—won’t be easy. It might, in fact, be impossible”:

[S]ince 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.”

I might not be so lucky here in the valley. I am not sure if my passport will be enough to let me fly out of McAllen-Miller International Airport, and I am not sure if my visibility will continue to protect me—not here, not at the border.

And today, just as he predicted, Vargas was detained:

A TSA agent checked Vargas’ Philippines passport and compared it to his ticket, according to a video of the exchange as well as sources familiar with the exchange. Satisfied, the agent initialed the ticket and cleared Vargas for travel. At that point, a Border Patrol agent took the passport from the TSA.

“Do you have your visa?” he asked.

“No, there’s no visa,” Vargas replied.

The agent asked Vargas a few more questions, then placed him in handcuffs and escorted him to the McAllen Border Patrol station for further questioning, according to the source. The station is not a detention center.

Dara Lind explains why the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist won’t necessarily be deported:

The government has “prosecutorial discretion” to determine what to do with unauthorized immigrants. That means it can decide whether or not to put Vargas into deportation proceedings in immigration court. The Obama administration has said, repeatedly, that its focus is on deporting unauthorized immigrants who fit its administration “priorities”: convicted criminals, “recent border crossers,” and people who have been deported and returned to the US. 98 percent of all people deported last year fit into one of those priorities. Vargas doesn’t meet any of those criteria.

Charles Cooke is sympathetic to Vargas but thinks the authorities had no alternative:

[T]his is a horribly sticky situation. Without question – and through no initial fault of his own – Vargas has found himself in a veritable nightmare. As he tells the story, he was brought here at a young age and told that he had legitimate papers, only later to discover that those papers had been forged. From that point on, his options were severely limited.

Conservatives who ask, “but why didn’t he just apply for legal status?” are rather missing the point. Under current law, he is unable to do so without leaving the country in which he has built his life. (Or marrying a U.S. citizen.) Because he did not have a petition filed before 2001, he didn’t qualify for relief under Section 245(i); because he is too old, he doesn’t qualify for the deferred action policy that President Obama illegally put into place in 2012. He’s genuinely stuck. Moreover, there really is no “home” for him to “go” to. This is it. If I had my way, he would be among those to whom some form of amnesty was extended. Those who have known nothing else should not be sent abroad.

Still, this is really not the point. The law that I would like doesn’t yet exist. And, knowing this better than anyone, Vargas willingly placed himself in this position. What were those charged with enforcing the rules supposed to do, exactly? Slip him under the desk?

Update: