Undocumented immigrant journalist Jose Vargas detained at Texas airport

CNN
Tuesday, July 15, 2014 - 9:37am

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas suspected he wouldn't get out.

His fear came to fruition Tuesday morning when he was detained at a Texas airport as he tried to pass through security en route to Los Angeles, his spokesman said. Vargas was being held at a detention center at the airport in McAllen, Texas, spokesman Ryan Eller said.

Official word on why he was detained wasn't immediately available, but Tania Chavez, an undocumented youth leader who met with Vargas recently and has accompanied him around the McAllen area, told CNN that Vargas was detained because he does not have the proper documentation.

Vargas wrote and directed "Documented," a film about the U.S. immigration debate and his life story. CNN aired it June 29.

Early Tuesday, Vargas tweeted that he was about to go through security at McAllen-Miller International Airport. Since outing himself as an undocumented immigrant three years ago, he says he has traveled extensively, visiting 40 states.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he tweeted, directing his followers to the Twitter handles for Define American and the University of Texas-Pan American's Minority Affairs Council.

Within minutes, the latter retweeted a photo of Vargas in handcuffs with the caption: "Here's a photo of (Vargas) in handcuffs, because the Border Patrol has nothing more pressing to do apparently."

In Politico last week, Vargas wrote a piece headlined "Trapped on the Border." The story documents how he traveled to McAllen to visit a shelter where undocumented immigrant children were being held. He also wanted to share his "story of coming to the United States as an unaccompanied minor from the Philippines," he wrote for Politico.

Once in McAllen, he spoke to Chavez, who expressed concern the journalist might not make it through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoints about 45 minutes outside McAllen.

"Even if you tell them you're a U.S. citizen, they will ask you follow-up questions if they don't believe you," Tania told him, according to the Politico piece.

"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," he wrote.

At age 12, Vargas came to the United States from the Philippines in 1993 with a man he'd never met but who his aunt and a family friend introduced as his uncle, Vargas wrote in a 2011 column for The New York Times Magazine.

Once in the States, he lived with his grandfather, a security guard, and grandmother, a food server. Both were naturalized American citizens who had been supporting Vargas and his mother since Vargas was 3.

"After I arrived in Mountain View, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, I entered sixth grade and quickly grew to love my new home, family and culture. I discovered a passion for language, though it was hard to learn the difference between formal English and American slang," Vargas wrote for the magazine.

One of his earliest memories, he wrote, was a schoolmate asking him, "What's up?" He replied, "The sky."

Vargas says he didn't know he was in the country illegally until he was 16, when he applied for a driver's license and was told his green card was bogus. He went home and asked his grandfather if that was true, according to the magazine story.

"Lolo was a proud man, and I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me. 'Don't show it to other people,' he warned," Vargas wrote.

Vargas has written for numerous publications as a journalist. He interned for The Seattle Times and worked for The Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News.

In 2008, he was part of The Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its breaking news coverage of the previous year's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. Vargas got bylines on two of the nine stories the Pulitzer board city.

CNN's Sara Pratley, Jason Hanna and Michael Humphrey contributed to this report.

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