Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas was freed Tuesday after being detained several hours by U.S. border officials in Texas, according to his advocacy group, Define American.
Early Tuesday, Vargas tweeted that he was "about to go thru security at McAllen Airport. I don't know what's going to happen." He also tweeted that his only ID was his "Philippine passport and my pocketbook US Constitution."
Vargas, 33, became an immigration sensation in 2011 when he revealed that he was an undocumented immigrant in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine. He arrived in McAllen several days ago to visit a shelter for undocumented children, to attend a vigil in their honor and to raise awareness of the plight of the undocumented.
"'I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country," Vargas said in a statement after his late-afternoon release. "Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family. 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?"
Define American campaign director Ryan Eller said Tuesday that it became apparent while Vargas was in Texas that "Vargas may not be able to leave McAllen — a situation shared by thousands of undocumented Americans who are 'stuck' at the border, which for them is a daily struggle."
Eller said Vargas planned to fly to Los Angeles but was detained when trying to go through security at McAllen/Miller International Airport, where Border Patrol work with Transportation Security Administration personnel to check documentation for all flights.
He added that Vargas had consulted with attorneys before going to the airport, and was with a "travel partner," whom authorities separated in security.
Border Patrol spokesman Omar Zamora confirmed that Vargas was in custody after being stopped going through security. He said he had no other details.
Eller said President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson have been asked to intervene to free Vargas. White House press secretary Josh Earnest would not comment, the Associated Press said.
Vargas wrote last week that he had been unaware that travelers driving through or flying out of the Rio Grande Valley were subjected to immigration checks. He noted that for years he had traveled the country without a problem and that he had no U.S.-government-issued identification.
"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. It might, in fact, be impossible," his Politico essay began.
Vargas was born in the Philippines and was raised in the U.S. from the age of 12. He was on a team of journalists from The Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. His visit to McAllen came at a time when immigration and border security have become a heated political issue.
In recent weeks, thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed the border without documents, creating a humanitarian and political crisis. Border officials are trying to find a haven for the children while many local residents don't want immigrants housed in their towns.