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Jose Antonio Vargas Arrest Puts Focus On Border Checkpoints

Image: FILE: Immigration Activist Jose Antonio Vargas Detained Jose Antonio Vargas Dicusses Life As Illegal Immigrant In U.S.

File photo of journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented Philippine immigrant, who was detained at an airport in McAllen, Texas and is being held at a Border Patrol station July 15, 2014. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The arrest of José Antonio Vargas drew attention to the realities for immigrants living on the Texas-Mexico border whose travel is restricted because they are illegally here.

Although Vargas, an immigration activist and former journalist who is illegally in the U.S., said he was unaware of the airport checkpoints before traveling to McAllen, Vargas acknowledged he learned of them after arriving in the border city. "I didn't know about border patrol agents at the airport, which is why I felt safe traveling here," Vargas said in his Facebook post.

Young immigrants responded to Vargas’ arrest with a quickly organized protest and news conference in opposition to Vargas detention and to explain how the requirements for documents to be shown to travel beyond the border area affect their lives.

Vargas, who founded the group Define American, planned to attend a vigil in McAllen, Texas in support of the tens of thousands of Central American and Mexican children that have been arriving for months on the Texas-Mexico border seeking to remain.

“It became apparent during our time here, in this border town, that the founder of our organization, Jose Antonio Vargas, may not be able to leave McAllen _ a situation shared by thousands of undocumented Americans who are “stuck” at the border, which for them is a daily struggle,” said Ryan Eller, Define America campaign director.

“The community leaders standing with me work with constituents and live this reality each and every day,” Eller said.

Vargas, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines, was stopped by agents who stand alongside Transportation Safety Agents at the McAllen airport. He was trying to board a plane back to Los Angeles, where his year-old documentary “Undocumented” was to be screened. Border Patrol also has checkpoints on roadways leading out of McAllen.

“Our America is better than this _ more humane, more compassionate _ and we are fighting for a better America: a country we love but has yet to recognize us,” Vargas said in a statement read at the news conference.

Tania Chavez, a leader of the Minority Affairs Council that advocates for immigrant youth illegally in the U.S., said Vargas “did not know what he was coming to.” Vargas wanted to show support for the kids, Chavez said. As a result, “he found himself trapped," she said at the news conference livestreamed on the web.

An attorney assisting the Define American group, Carlos Moctezuma García, said Vargas had no alternative but to try to board a plane using his passport, "unless he starts living here." He said he was a little surprised Vargas was not aware of the airport checks before arriving.

"I do find it surprising that people don't know the conditions we live under here in what I refer to as a Constitution-free zone," said García is based in McAllen. "The reality is most Americans don't undertand what goes on on the border. We are Americans and we live under a different set of rules."

Luis Maldonado, 27, said he is hemmed in by Border Patrol checkpoints north, east and west, the border to the south or the Gulf of Mexico. He now has quasi-legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and can drive beyond those checkpoints or board a plane to visit family in San Antonio or Houston from his hometown of Edinburg, Texas. But he said for 17 years of his life, "I've been trapped."

"For 17 years, I would drive to school or work next to Border Patrol and be freaking out. Are they going to stop me now? If they stop me, am I going to get due process? We are so close to the border, they can just drop me off, and it happens," said Maldonado, who arrived in the U.S. at age 10.

The checkpoints kept him from using a full scholarship to Texas Southern University in Houston. "I had to make a decision. Can I risk crossing the checkpoint? Do I risk going to college or stay here?" When he was 13 or 14, a pediatrician recommended his mother get him specialized health care in Corpus Christi, but they couldn't go because of the risk, he said.

Having DACA, has "allowed me to feel liberated," Maldonado said, and gave him a taste of freedom.

"But the rest of my community is not free," he said.