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2014-07-16

How Do We Define American? Jose Vargas, Symbol of Undocumented Immigrant Struggle, Detained in Texas

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Jose Antonio Vargas, one of the country’s best-known undocumented immigrants, was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol on Tuesday. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Vargas came to the United States from the Philippines in 1993 at the age of 12. After reporting for The Washington Post and other outlets, he revealed his undocumented status in a widely read essay in 2011. Vargas recently traveled to the Texas border to document the crisis of thousands of migrant children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. But he soon realized he might have trouble leaving due to the heavy presence of Border Patrol agents and checkpoints. On Tuesday, Vargas was arrested at McAllen-Miller International Airport and held for about eight hours. His detention became a top U.S. trend on Twitter, with hundreds using the hashtag #IStandWithJose. As the country watched, Vargas was eventually released with a notice to appear before an immigration judge. In a statement after his release, Vargas said, "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?" We broadcast video of Vargas speaking in McAllen, Texas, about the U.S. treatment of child migrants just days before his arrest. "These children are not illegal; they are human beings, and they are not a national security threat," Vargas says. "The only threat that these children pose to us is the threat of testing our own conscience."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the country’s best-known undocumented immigrants has been released following his detention at a Texas airport. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, first came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993. In 2011, he became a leading undocumented activist after revealing his status in a widely read essay. Vargas had recently traveled to the Texas border to document the crisis of thousands of Central American children fleeing poverty and violence. But he says he soon realized he might have trouble leaving with just his Philippines passport due to the heavy presence of Border Patrol agents and checkpoints. On Tuesday, as he attempted to fly to Houston en route to Los Angeles, Vargas was arrested by immigration authorities for the first time in his life and held for most of the day. The Department of Homeland Security eventually released Vargas, saying he did not have a prior record, and their priority was to remove, quote, "criminal individuals."

AMY GOODMAN: Five days before his arrest, on July 10th, Vargas spoke at a news conference in McAllen, Texas, in front of the Sacred Heart Church, where immigrant children are being sheltered. He began by telling his story.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: When I was 12, my mother put me on a plane with a coyote and sent me to America. It took me many years to kind of face and grapple with that experience, the journey of being with a strange man that I’ve never met before, who my family paid off to accompany me on my first plane ride, the sacrifice of my mother, whom I have not seen in person for almost 21 years, that traumatic experience of being uprooted as a 12-year-old and being told by my mother that if anybody ever asked me when I got here where I was going, I should tell them that I was going to Disneyland. And my border—this is probably one of the closest times I’ve been to the border—my border was the Pacific Ocean; I got here from the Philippines on a plane.

So in these past, you know, few days and weeks, seeing the images of these Central American children, listening to the story of Jose Luis, I cannot fully imagine—I cannot fully imagine the treacherous, dangerous, desperate and long trek to safety, freedom and some kind of peace that these children are going through. When you’re nine or when you’re 10—when you’re nine or 10 or 11, you worry about summer camp and PlayStation. But right now, when you’re nine or 10 or 11, you don’t know what it means to be called "illegal," and you don’t understand how your life is being played with by the political crossfire that is happening. But that is exactly what’s been happening. The way many news organizations and the way many pundits in the media and the way many politicians, particularly in the Republican Party, are talking about this humanitarian crisis is an affront to America and to Americans. A few days ago, a headline story on CBSNews.com, the headline was: "Is the Surge of Illegal Child Immigrants a National Security Threat?" That was the headline. These children are not illegal; they are human beings. And they are not a national security threat. The only threat that these children pose to us is the threat of testing our own conscience. I just heard that Senator Coburn from Oklahoma just said that we should fly all these kids first-class seats. I said, "They managed to make this trek and walk from where they come from, so they can get on a plane to get a first-class seat? Shame on you, Senator."

And since, you know, we are here in Texas, we cannot speak up today without talking about Governor Perry, who has been in the news quite a lot in the past few days now. Like many Republican leaders, like Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Cornyn here from Texas, Governor Perry has been saying that a directive called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, is accountable for the surge of these Central American children—knowing, by the way, this is the same governor, Governor Perry, who has said that this surge has been happening for years, right? Before DACA, before deferred action was even instituted. And they’re saying—a lot of these Republican leaders are saying that this is happening because President Obama is not enforcing immigration law. You mean the same President Obama that has deported nearly two million immigrants in five years? If that is not confusing to you—if that is not clear to you, then you’re not paying attention.

But, you know, politics aside, Texans across this great state have defined American by opening up their hearts and, in some instances, their homes. I was just told that a judge from Dallas County is defining American by making a place for 2,000 refugee children in Dallas. That’s how I define America. Three years ago, Governor Perry, in defending in-state tuition for undocumented Texans, Governor Perry said, quote, "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart." So I think the question now here is: When it comes to these refugee children, Governor Perry, where is your heart? Where is your compassion? These children are not coming here to go to Disneyland. They are coming here for their lives. Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, one of the country’s best-known undocumented immigrants, speaking last week. Yesterday, he was detained by the Border Patrol. He had traveled to the Texas border to document the crisis of thousands of immigrant children from Central America fleeing poverty and violence. After reporting for The Washington Post and other outlets for years, Vargas revealed his undocumented status in an essay for The New York Times Magazine in 2011. Vargas issued a statement after his release, saying, quote, "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. 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?" he said. Special thanks to Bryan Parras and Liana Lopez for that footage.

And that does it for our show. I’ll be speaking at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, July 21st; in Martha’s Vineyard, Saturday, July 26, at 7:00 p.m. at the Katharine Cornell Auditorium in Vineyard Haven, special reception 5:00 at the Beach Plum Inn in Menemsha. Check our website, democracynow.org.

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