Immigration activist and former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, an illegal immigrant from the Philippines, was arrested on Friday in Minnesota during a traffic stop, but ICE refused to take custody of him. Vargas "came out" as an illegal immigrant in a piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine last year in which he admitted to committing document fraud to try to conceal his illegal status in the United States.
Vargas apparently was pulled over for driving with headphones on and was arrested after presenting a driver's license that had been revoked after the story in the Times was published. He was taken to a Hennepin County jail and questioned by ICE agents, but they released him without charges.
Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokesperson, told a reporter from the New York Times that Vargas wasn't arrested because "ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of public safety threats, recent border crossers, and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States."
ICE has limited resources and it makes sense for them to target their enforcement efforts, but when they have someone in custody who's broken the law they have a duty to enforce whatever penalties might apply to that individual, even if that person happens to write for some blue chip publications. Vargas broke the law, even he admits that, but apparently there is no penalty for his transgressions.
Rep. Elton Gallegly, a California Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, told POLITICO that ICE's treatment of Vargas sets a bad precedent and I tend to agree. If ICE practices catch and release with someone like Vargas, who has overstayed his visa by many years and has committed document fraud, others in a similar situation will certainly demand the same white-glove treatment.
Vargas, who at 31 is too old to quality for President Obama's amnesty, has been on a crusade to get the mainstream media to abandon use of the terms "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien". I listened to him make this case on the public radio program "On the Media" less than two weeks ago, and found his arguments unpersuasive to say the least.
Vargas contends that using the word "illegal" is imprecise and incorrect because immigration violations are civil rather than criminal offenses. He also objects to the term because, as he put it, half of those who are here without status, like himself, arrived legally with visas and overstayed them.
Focusing on immigration penalties and technicalities doesn't obscure the fact that he and others like him are residing in the country illegally. Furthermore, the only reason he was able to arrive here with a visa was thanks to fraud and inadequate or inept visa screening. Based on his story in the Times, it sounds like his family had him apply for a tourist visa even though they wanted him to live in the United States.
In any event, people who overstay visas are in the same boat as those who entered illegally — they're both here with no legal status. The former group may not have emigrated illegally, but they are still illegal immigrants. And whether they're called that or undocumented immigrants, ICE isn't interested in removing them unless they're Jack the Ripper or Freddy Krueger. It doesn't matter if the media uses the term "illegal" or not because we've already legitimized the flagrant abuse of our borders by turning a blind eye to migrants who flout our laws.