Federal border authorities release prominent immigrant-rights activist

Agents seized Antonio Vargas early Tuesday at an airport along the US-Mexico border

Federal border authorities on Tuesday released a prominent immigration-reform advocate — who is an undocumented immigrant himself — after detaining him earlier the same day at an airport along the U.S. border with Mexico. His detainment sparked cries from immigrant-reform activists for his immediate release.

"I’ve been released by Border Patrol," Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for The Washington Post, said in a release. "I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country. Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family."

At the time of his arrest, Vargas had attempted to board a plane from Texas to Los Angeles, where he planned to participate in a public screening of the film "Documented," Ryan Eller, the campaign director for Vargas' advocacy group Define American, said in a message posted to Facebook.

Earlier Tuesday, Eller called on President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to release Vargas, 33. According to the Washington Post, the White House declined to comment, saying it would rather not weigh in on a “law enforcement issue.”

Vargas had been in Texas to visit a shelter for undocumented migrant children, many from Central America, who have stretched border-patrol resources and ignited controversy in Washington over how to fund their care, legal costs and, in most cases, their eventual deportation.

The White House has said most will not be able to stay in the country as refugees, having fled Central America’s drug violence and poverty, sometimes alongside mothers but many also alone.

In an article last week, Vargas acknowledged that his visit might result in his detention by immigration authorities.

“In the last 24 hours I realize that, for an undocumented immigrant like me, getting out of a border town in Texas — by plane or by land — won’t be easy,” Vargas wrote in a story for Politico Magazine published Friday.

“It might, in fact, be impossible.”

Vargas said Customs and Border Patrol agents in the area check with a rigor not seen other places in the country, utilizing checkpoints and intense questioning. 

The journalist-turned-activist came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied child and never resolved his immigration status. Despite this secret legal handicap, he was able to build a successful career in journalism, winning a Pulitzer prize alongside other Washington Post journalists for his coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting.

In 2011, he rose to prominence after writing an essay in The New York Times disclosing his undocumented status and discussing the plight of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of whom, like Vargas himself, came to the country as children.

Vargas' ordeal elicited support from New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, chief executive of a city where immigrants — documented and undocumented — form its economic and cultural backbone.

De Blasio said Border Patrol failed to make the right choice when they detained Vargas, a longtime resident of the U.S.

"Jose Antonio has spent most of his life in the United States, he was educated by American schools, went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize while working as a journalist at the Washington Post, and eventually disclosed his undocumented status to advocate for a much-needed debate around citizenship," De Blasio said.

"He exemplifies what America is about."

'These are children'

The thousands of undocumented children who have come in recent months to the United States are now being shuttled around the country, with a few having ended up as the subject of protests by opponents of immigration reform.

On Tuesday, pro- and anti-immigrant activists staged rallies in Oracle, Arizona, where about 50 immigrant children arrived by bus at a youth camp.

Authorities kept the two rallies about three miles apart, with each side comprised of about 150 people, according to the New York Times.

The sheriff of the county where Oracle is located said that he sided with the anti-immigrant protesters, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I have enough problems with drugs, and I don’t need any more on immigrants compliments of President Obama," said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Tuesday his city would offer shelter to the child migrants, expressing sympathy for their plight.

“Before you get partisan, before you tell me where you are on immigration — these are children,” the mayor said.

During eight months ending June 15, some 52,000 children were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them from Central America. That is twice the previous year's tally, and tens of thousands more are believed to have slipped through. On Monday, the U.S. began deporting a number of the migrant children back to their home countries.

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