Jose Antonio Vargas, the nation’s most prominent undocumented immigrant, was released from U.S. Border Patrol custody on Tuesday. He had been detained for several hours after attempting to board a flight in the small border town of McAllen, Texas.
“I’ve been released by Border Patrol. I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country,” he said in a statement. “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?”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a former HuffPost editor, flew to the border last week to interview and film undocumented immigrants who have fled their home countries in Central America due to escalating violence. But what he didn’t know is that in order to leave McAllen, he would need to pass through an interior U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint.
A TSA agent at the McAllen-Miller Airport initially cleared Vargas’ Philippines-issued passport when he attempted to board a flight Tuesday morning. He was placed into custody soon after, however, when he couldn’t produce a U.S. visa at the request of a border patrol agent.
“Do you have your visa?” the agent asked, according to audio of the exchange.
“No, there’s no visa,” Vargas replied.
The agent then placed him in handcuffs and escorted him to the McAllen Border Patrol station for further questioning.
The Department of Homeland Security confirmed Vargas was processed at the McAllen Border Patrol station, provided with a notice to appear before an immigration judge, and ultimately released after consultation with ICE.
“Mr. Vargas has not previously been arrested by ICE nor has the agency ever issued a detainer on him or encountered him,” DHS 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.”
A call to Vargas about the incident was not immediately returned.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to comment on Vargas’ detention during the daily White House briefing on Tuesday. But several politicians, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), called for his release Tuesday afternoon.
The McAllen incident is not the first time Vargas has been detained by authorities over his undocumented status. In 2012, Minnesota State Police officers stopped Vargas while he was driving down a highway outside Minneapolis because he was driving with headphones on. He was taken to a county jail where he was questioned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, but no immigration charges were filed against him.
“Mr. Vargas was not arrested by ICE nor did the agency issue a detainer,” said Gillian Christensen, an agency spokeswoman, according to The New York Times. “ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of public safety threats, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States.”