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Vargas, Journalist And Immigration Activist, Is Detained In Texas


And near the U.S.-Mexico border today, a very public detention of a well-known figure in the immigration debate. The journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas was taken into custody by federal immigration authorities at the airport in McAllen, Texas. He had traveled to the area with members of a group he founded called Define American. He was looking to highlight conditions for the children crossing the border illegally.

Vargas is, as he publicly disclosed three years ago, a Filipino without legal status in the U.S., though he has lived in this country for more than 20 years. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been following this story and joins us now. And David, explain to us what Vargas was attempting to do.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, Vargas had been down in that area near the border for some days. And he had been traveling, as I understand it, with a film crew trying to raise attention on this - on the situation for children who had been crossing the border illegally. This morning, pretty much first thing he tweeted - about to go through security at McAllen Airport. I don't know what's going to happen. And, you know, he was trying to shed light both on their condition and what it is like to travel in the U.S. as a person without legal status.

CORNISH: Tell us more about him. We know that he's been a reporter with the Washington Post among other places.

FOLKENFLIK: Yes, you know, he's written for the San Francisco Chronicle. He had worked for the Washington Post where he had shared in a Pulitzer for coverage at the Virginia Tech slayings on that campus. He was an editor and writer for the Huffington Post for a little bit.

And then he sort of came out in this story for the Sunday New York Times Magazine in 2011, talking about how he had come to this country as a young man but hadn't realized until he was 16 and applied for a driver's license that he didn't have legal status as an immigrant here. And he realized his whole understanding of his relationship to the U.S. was changed. He talked a bit about that in a documentary that appeared on CNN just a couple of days ago. And he has been straddling this line between journalism and activism ever since.

CORNISH: And you talked about his activism since this disclosure. So how has he been able to travel around the country?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he professes that this is a question that amazes him. He says he uses his own passport from the Philippines to do so, and that he has no visa enabling him, giving him authority to travel freely. He keeps expecting to be pulled aside by a TSA agent or some other federal or law enforcement official and it just simply hasn't happened. He has said, and I think there's probably some truth to this, that his prominence in his profession as a journalist who's spoken publicly, testified before Congress, may have offered him some insulation from arrest until this time.

CORNISH: David, how are we to look at these activities - journalism or activism? I'm sure some people are looking at this move to go to McAllen-Miller International Airport, where border patrol stands alongside TSA, and calling it a publicity stunt.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's probably some justification for all three of those interpretations. If you look at what he said publicly, for example, in an interview with the Dallas Morning News recently or in some of his own writings, he's clearly wrestled with his ability to travel publicly - to speak publicly and yet have essentially a non-legal status in this country when so many other people have been detained and, in fact, sent back to their countries of origin. You know, in this instance I think he is come to terms with that and I think he sought out this opportunity to be detained to evoke and illustrate the plight for so many other people from other lands.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Folkenflik on the detention today of Jose Antonio Vargas. Thanks so much for talking with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.