On July 5, Jose Antonio Vargas received a text message from Cristina Jimenez, the co-founder and managing director of the immigrant youth-led organisation United We Dream.
“Hi love!” she wrote. “We are sending delegation to border earlier. We are going next week. Can you join us Thursday?”
Jimenez wanted Vargas, perhaps the most famous undocumented immigrant in the United States, to join the group at a vigil in McAllen, Texas, a border town in which many of the thousands of unaccompanied children that have flowed into America from Mexico in recent months are being held at a makeshift shelter.
The group’s vigil was meant as a show of solidarity for what it calls a “refugee crisis.” While in McAllen, Vargas also planned to interview and film undocumented children in the shelter who had fled from gang violence in their home countries in Central America.
Vargas, ironically, is now trapped himself in that border town, providing a wrinkle in the current debate over how to address the situation involving the children and other migrants that have come across the border. The town sits inside an approximately 45-minute radius surrounded by U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints, which makes it almost impossible to leave without the proper documentation Vargas does not have.
“It really was not apparent to either of us that this would be a problem,” Jimenez told Business Insider.
Indeed, the thought Vargas was headed to a potentially dangerous zone was originally lost on both himself and Jimenez.
Vargas says he has been to 43 states in three years, including border towns in California and Arizona. He has been to Texas Tech University, which is in the town of Lubbock, twice in the past six months. But the situation in McAllen, he argues, is different. In an interview with Business Insider, he described it as a “militarized zone.”
“I feel trapped just being here,” he said. “Can you imagine living here?”
It wasn’t until Thursday that Vargas and Jimenez realised the situation in which Vargas now finds himself could be a possibility. Tania Chavez, an undocumented youth leader from the Minority Affairs Council and one of the organisers of the vigil, asked him a simple question: “How will you get out of here?”
The checkpoints in Texas are a situation unique to that border area, as Vargas explained last week in an essay for Politico Magazine. McAllen is part of a 100-mile-wide stretch the federal government has designated as a place where it sometimes has the power to go beyond the normal limits of constitutional authority. The American Civil Liberties Union has deemed it a “constitutional free zone.”
“She felt really bad,” Vargas said of Jimenez. “Once we both realised what was going on, we both just sort of looked at each other in disbelief.”
Vargas came to the United States as a child, but he is not eligible for the federal deferred action program because he is more than 30-years-old. He could try to fly out of the local airport, but the rules at McAllen-Miller International Airport are reportedly unusually strict, which makes him question whether his passport — or his high-profile status — will be enough for him to get by this time. Frankly, Vargas said he doesn’t know how, or if, he’s going to get out.
Vargas said he came down to McAllen to “humanize” the unaccompanied children involved in the immigration debate. After getting stuck in the town, he said he feels as though he’s done that in more ways than he originally intended. On Saturday, Vargas took to his public Facebook page where he posted a photo of some of the donations to the shelter from people across the U.S. since he went public with his situation. He said the contributions that have flowed into the shelter sums up the generosity of those volunteers.
For Vargas, the situation in which he now finds himself has illuminated the debate. He said he has realised how secure the border is, even as politicians bluster about taking more steps and sending in the National Guard. Vargas also said he has realised what it’s like to be stuck in limbo.
Every morning now, when he looks out the window of his hotel room, Vargas sees a Border Patrol van parked outside.
It makes Vargas remember that, for all the complaints about President Barack Obama needing to do more to enforce immigration laws, his administration has deported immigrants at a faster rate than any other president in U.S. history.
Vargas also said his situation reminds him that for the $US3.7 billion Obama is seeking to improve border security, the border is “more secure than ever” — it’s why the children coming across the border are being apprehended. And Vargas thinks the way we treat these children, and whether we view them as anything less than refugees, will “define who we are as a country.”
“I had to go to the border in Texas just to realise how in danger my life is,” Vargas said.
Here’s one of the videos Vargas has produced from McAllen:
This post was updated at 10:50 p.m. ET on Monday.
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