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Reporter who wrote about life as undocumented immigrant arrested in Minnesota

Daniel Sellers
Image from DefineAmerican videoJose Antonio Vargas

Reporter Jose Vargas was arrested Friday morning and charged with driving without a valid driver’s license, a misdemeanor.

(Update: A Minnesota State Patrol officer stopped Vargas on Interstate 35-W near 46th Street in Minneapolis around 9:00 a.m., according to agency spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske.

An initial version of this story reported he was arrested by Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Police.)

A native of the Philippines, Vargas is best known for his June 2011 New York Times essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” in which he described the steps he is forced to take to work in the United States, where he has lived since 1993, when he was 12.

(Update: The initial version of this story reported that Vargas works for the New York Times. He has worked for a number of publications, including the Washington Post, but does not appear to be a Times employee.)

It’s unclear why Vargas was stopped. He is scheduled to appear in Hennepin County District Court Oct. 18.

(Update: Vargas was stopped because he was wearing headphones, Roeske said.)

His arrest here on a traffic violation is newsworthy because the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the county jail, participates in Secure Communities, a Bush administration initiative to secure local law enforcement cooperation in reporting undocumented immigrants to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.

In response, ICE routinely places deportation holds on undocumented individuals, whether or not the offense they are suspected of merits booking into the jail. Law enforcement participation is voluntary.

According to county records, Vargas was booked into the Hennepin County Jail at 10:49 this morning. Individuals suspected of driving without a license are typically issued a citation at the scene and not arrested or held.

Update: A State Patrol captain who handles calls from troopers who suspect they have detained an undocumented individual contacted ICE, Roeske said. The federal agency then typically asks the jail to place an immigration hold on the individual. There is nothing in the law enforcement agency’s file on the incident that says whether this was done.

In marked contrast to the way most undocumented immigrants have been handled during Sheriff Rich Stanek’s tenure, Vargas was released at 1:34 Friday afternoon.

(Update: Vargas was headed to Carleton College to give the weekly convocation.)

Among the steps Vargas enumerated in his Times piece were his efforts to secure a valid driver’s license, something he eventually managed to do in Oregon.

From the essay: “My license, issued in 2003, was set to expire eight years later, on my 30th birthday, on Feb. 3, 2011. I had eight years to succeed professionally, and to hope that some sort of immigration reform would pass in the meantime and allow me to stay.

“It seemed like all the time in the world.”

Several large law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and Illinois’ Cook County, have refused to participate in Secure Communities, the Times reported this morning.

MinnPost learned of Vargas’ arrest after business hours Friday evening; if we are able to reach Vargas or county officials for more details we will update this story.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Geoff Stanley on 10/05/2012 - 09:01 pm.

    A wake up call

    Today one of America’s most articulate, intelligent, hard-working journalists was arrested and may be deported. I think this arrest should serve as a wake up call to the U.S. It should serve as an urgent reminder to reform our mangled, expensive, inefficient, and inhumane immigration system.

    Jose arrived here as a kid, received a taxpayer-funded American education (at the same high school I attended), and is an American in every regard except his immigration status. He speaks and writes better English than most U.S. citizens, myself included, and as a journalist he has undoubtedly seen more of the country and gotten to know its inhabitants better than most of us ever will. Yet somehow he is deemed a foreigner who doesn’t belong here, who shouldn’t pay taxes to support social services, and who shouldn’t contribute his intelligent, articulate coverage of events to our nation’s media.

    Jose’s life will be turned upside down. All that he worked for, and all that society paid for (his education, infrastructure, etc) will be thrown away. He’ll take his American education back to the Philippines, and undoubtedly rebuild some semblance of a career. The Philippines may end up better off, but it is clear that the United States will suffer, both economically and morally. We cannot continue to deport talent and expect to rebuild our economy at the same time. We cannot continue to deport young immigrants, who have decades of work to do and hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxes to pay, when our aging population is straining the entitlement system.

    The U.S. was founded by immigrants. Its economic engine continues to be propelled forth by immigrants – 18% of small businesses are owned by immigrants, who only make up 13% of the population. We have one of the lowest population densities of the developed world, so there is plenty of room to absorb on the world’s talent. The choice is ours – are we a country that accepts immigrants, or do we close our doors, grow old, and stagnate?

  2. Submitted by mandy ka on 10/05/2012 - 11:04 pm.

    rejected ridiculous


  3. Submitted by Wayne Froese on 10/05/2012 - 11:08 pm.

    I have mixed feelings

    If writing well made you a citizen, there would be fewer citizens. Today I spent 12 hours travelling in order to renew my work authorization and I’ve just returned home. To me, home is the USA. I too have a SSN and card that says “not valid without INS authorization”. I have never worked without that authorization and times have not always been good. Still, I would rather live in a land based on laws. Jose’s family set him on an illegal path. He has a sad situation, but mostly because he hasn’t succeeded very well in breaking the law. The author wants us to feel that Jose was cheated by that system. Wouldn’t it be better or more honest to suggest that we should change the law to allow everyone to work here or reward law breaking behaviour? But we all see why the author couldn’t take that approach – nobody would accept that. Instead, we should focus on the difficulties in his life and the unfairness of his situation. How is not true for most who wish to be here and work in the USA?

  4. Submitted by Tim Brummer on 10/06/2012 - 03:18 pm.

    BS Beth, Jose was not FORCED to commit numerous felonies to work in the USA, he chose to do it so he could take a job from an American rather than return to the Philippines. Give Jose your job and go on unemployment, then let us know if you still feel the same way.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/06/2012 - 07:41 pm.

    Travel question

    Tell us, Mr. Brummer, how you would get to the Philippines as a 12-year-old.

    Lacking a satisfactory answer, I’d be willing to believe you might be “forced” to do certain things to survive in this country. In that context – a 12-year-old in a foreign country – there are only “choices” if you have alternatives. Explain the alternatives available to Mr. Vargas as a 12-year-old, please.

    And no, I don’t believe we should simply throw open our borders to let anyone and everyone emigrate to the United States.

    • Submitted by Tim Brummer on 10/08/2012 - 09:41 pm.

      Well Ray

      You get to the Philippines the same way you get here, by jet airliner. Minors travel unaccompanied all the time, although Jose was not breaking any laws until he turned 18 when he because responsible for his illegal status. He could have returned then on his own but decided instead to begin a life of crime in the USA.

  6. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/07/2012 - 08:05 am.

    “..and they came for the ‘other’…and I didn’t speak up…”

    First, ignore injustice…then applaud it in unison…then wipe away small fears like sweat drops on the brow…who’s next?

    My guess is as good as another?

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/07/2012 - 12:14 pm.

    I wonder…

    How many fans of illegally entering the US would sing a different tune after learning the “undocumented immigrant” that just totaled their Volvo and sent them to the ER has neither drivers liscense or insurance.

    • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 10/08/2012 - 10:34 am.

      Great Point

      So let’s make sure the ability to legally drive and acquire insurance has nothing to do with immigration status. I’d feel safer in my “Volvo” that way than pretending that ICE policies and practices are preventing “illegal” drivers.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/08/2012 - 08:02 pm.

        Sure, Michael..I’m with ya

        In fact, let’sust do away with all that other superflous balogney too…passports, birth certificates, green cards; who need’s em?

  8. Submitted by craig furguson on 10/08/2012 - 10:07 am.


    I’m not a huge fan of Stanek, but I think your comment, “In marked contrast to the way most undocumented immigrants have been handled during Sheriff Rich Stanek’s tenure, Vargas was released at 1:34 Friday afternoon” is inaccurate.

    This implies that participation in Secure Communities is voluntary (it’s not) and that the Sheriff places the hold (he doesn’t, ICE does). As you pointed out, the State Patrol may have contacted ICE also. Plus I believe ICE staff have the ability to monitor the jail population, there is an online public data site. So are we asking the Sheriff not to not book people who might be deported?

    ICE only has funding to deport approximately 400,000 people a year and there are approximately 11 million illegal aliens in the US. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to focus on deporting those that participate in criminal behavior. We can have a conversation about what “criminal” is, but at the end of the day I think we are correcting prioritizing the use of our available resources on deporting people who are not following the law. As usual, adults are allowed to make poor decisions in the US, even ones that get them incarcerated or deported.

  9. Submitted by Tim Brummer on 10/08/2012 - 08:04 pm.

    Ray,Jose didn’t begin his


    Jose didn’t begin his life of crime until age 18 when he became liable for his illegal status. At that time he could have easily flown back to the Philippines, for free even if he turned himself over to ICE.

    Actually he probably could have flown back at age 12 and stayed with relatives if his parents had allowed it but it’s not required to do so by law until age 18. Unaccompanied minors fly all the time.

  10. Submitted by Tim Brummer on 10/08/2012 - 12:23 pm.

    The injustice

    Is perpetrated by our corrupted government which promotes illegal immigration by rewarding it. This is unjust to law abiding Americans and legal immigrants. Elect a non-corrupt government that will enforce the laws evenly and fairly to end this injustice.

  11. Submitted by Tim Brummer on 10/08/2012 - 12:30 pm.


    America is based upon the rule of law and nothing else, without it we cease to be a nation.

    The documentation as you put it is the only thing that makes someone an American and nothing else, not race, nor language, nor heritage, nor education, nor work ability.

    Also the US was not founded by immigrants, it was founded by British citizens born in British America. None of the founding fathers was an immigrant.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/12/2012 - 09:00 am.

      British America

      Just what do you suppose those British citizens that weren’t in Britain were to the people that lived there before the British Americans arrived?

      I do agree that this is a complicated situation, but I’m afraid that I feel that Mr. Vargas has probably gotten special treatment. There are two separate issues in this situation, and I will ignore the one that puts him in custody after a misdemeanor. The immigration status issue could and should have been rectified by Mr. Vargas. He not only knew of his status, but he’s not someone who simply can’t afford to make things right.

  12. Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 10/08/2012 - 09:16 pm.

    As Shakespeare wrote:

    The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
    ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown;
    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
    But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
    It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,
    When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
    That in the course of justice none of us
    Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
    The deeds of mercy.

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