Jose Antonio Vargas’ detention shows what ‘border security’ actually entails

A reminder to reporters: Look beyond familiar images of agents patrolling the line

AUSTIN, TX — The blurry photograph appears to capture the moment on July 15 when a Border Patrol agent handcuffed Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and perhaps the nation’s most well-known undocumented immigrant, at a South Texas airport near the border. A video captured by a reporter with the McAllen newspaper, The Monitor, who was evidently positioned a few yards away, recorded the preceding moments when a Transportation Security Administration agent reviewed Vargas’ passport and then handed it to a nearby Border Patrol agent.

The exchange was not without its element of media construction. Hours earlier, Vargas tweeted: “The only IDs I have for security: Philippine passport and my pocketbook US Constitution” Soon after his detention, the story flashed across the websites of news outlets around the country.

The groundwork had been laid four days earlier, on July 11, when Politico Magazine published an essay by Vargas, who described his situation in South Texas under the headline: “Trapped on the Border. I came to Texas to document the crisis of undocumented immigrants. Now I’m stuck.” In traveling to the Rio Grande Valley, Vargas wrote, “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and knew nothing about life as undocumented in a border town in Texas, where checkpoints and border patrol agents are parts of everyday life. I’ve been flying everywhere across the country—what would make this trip different?”

While the border is a literal line in the sand or demarcated by the Rio Grande River, “border security”—as Vargas learned firsthand in recent days—reaches far broader, stretching some 100 miles inland. Vargas’ recounting of being “trapped” on the border offers an important look at the elaborate apparatus of local, county state, and federal agencies involved in “border security.” “I’d heard about checkpoints and Border Patrol agents, but I didn’t realize just how much a militarized zone the Texas border is,” he wrote. Vargas is hardly alone in lacking information about what “border security” really, fully means in Texas. Too often, reporting on “border security” fails to look beyond the border itself—the border wall, images of the Border Patrol broncos kicking up dirt across the levees along the river, or agents in their familiar green uniforms riding on horseback or cruising the river, patrolling the line.

One recent example: Fox News’s Sean Hannity and his “border tour” by air and by water last week with Gov. Rick Perry. Hannity later tweeted a photograph of the two men onboard a gunboat traveling down the Rio Grande River, Hannity’s arm casually draped over the mounted automatic rifle—an image that more or less summarizes the report. Politico wrote up Hannity’s border tour—covering it as an event and carrying it to a different audience—on the same day that Vargas’ essay ran in Politico Magazine. The Hannity photo-op reflects, in an exaggerated manner, the all too common practice of seeing the “border security” story as one built from the the banks of the Rio Grande.

A “border tour,” of course, can only tell part of the story.

Texans—reporters included—who live and work in the border region are all too familiar with the network of security forces involved in “border security.” See, for example, this July 13 tweet from Tim Sullivan, the news director for KURV’s NewsTalk in McAllen:

Now, the White House has sent a $3.7 billion appropriation request to Congress to address the influx of mostly unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the border in South Texas—in part by increasing border security. Already a political fight has erupted over spending on border enforcement. As yet another round of political deal-making gets underway, it is useful for journalists and the public to have a firm handle on what “border security” actually entails, and how it is implemented along the border cities that are home to well over 1 million people.

Armed gun boats belonging to the Texas police regularly cruise along the Rio Grande, and troopers have been known to fire across the river. Last year, state troopers set up temporary highway checkpoints. Although officials denied they were part of a border enforcement strategy, residents reported seeing Border Patrol working alongside Department of Public Safety officers. The skies are filled with unmanned drones and Texas state police helicopters. Meanwhile, ATF, DEA, and ICE agents are also involved in border security.

Texans who live far from the borderlands may, like Vargas, know little of life amidst “border sercurity.” Last year, for example, the (Austin-based) Texas Observer offered this “postcard” report from the borderlands, describing for their readers up north the lived experience of “border security.” “To get back home, they have to answer questions from a Border Patrol agent at the checkpoint, and those intractions can be unpleasant, even downright antagonistic.”

Often the best approaches to covering the border begin by simply taking our eyes off the actual border and gazing north and into the communities for an up-close look at border enforcement. Critical and often unexpected details are often wrapped in other stories such as the elevated number of high-speed chases in border counties, deployment of drones, and the application of civil asset forfeiture that has enriched the coffers of border country sheriffs. (NPR and The New Yorker have produced impressive reports about the state’s permissive use of civil asset forfeiture laws which has resulted in legally questionable, at times illegal, roadside stops and seizures.)

Last year, I reported a piece for Al Jazeera America on what securing the border means for South Texans (as well as chronicling my encounters with the border security apparatus that included unexplained roadside stops, questioning and pursuits by state police.) I wrote:

On South Texas highways, where anti-littering signs warn: “Don’t Mess With Texas,” it is common to cross paths with a sheriff’s deputy, local police, Border Patrol agents, a county drug-task-force agent and one of the black state-trooper cruisers all within a few minutes.

The wide-ranging panorama of border security was well captured by Roger D. Hodge in a 2012 Popular Science magazine story. Wrote Hodge:

I spotted a place to pull over and decided to turn around. That’s when the flashing lights went on behind me. I stopped, several more trucks pulled up, and soon men in green uniforms were peering through all the windows of my vehicle. “What seems to be the trouble, officer?” I asked. “You turned around,” came the reply.

The lead agent was friendly enough, but he was insistent in his inquiries. He wanted to know what I was doing out there on a remote stretch of highway not far from Mexico. My explanation, that I had driven south from Del Rio because I was curious about the security infrastructure that had materialized along the border in the 25 years since I loaded up my car and drove off to college, struck him as implausible and weird. … Eventually, after much discussion, it was determined that I had not committed a detainable offense, and I was permitted to continue on my way, at liberty.

There is, of course, big money involved in “border security,” at all levels of government. Spending and budget numbers can give the border story much-needed scale and context. Last year, Migration Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found that the US spending on federal immigration enforcement outstrips all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined.

As I wrote in my Al Jazeera America report last year, state government spending on border security in Texas has topped $452 million, according to the Legislative Budget Board. In the last state budget, lawmakers awarded $212.9 million to the state police, and funding is proected to increase to $331.2 million in the next fiscal year.

The latest “border surge” approved last month by the Texas Legislature, at a cost of some $30 million, sent state troopers into South Texas, adding to a border build up that the San Antonio Express-News recently described as a “small army.” On the local and county level, sheriffs and local law enforcement, receive state and federal funds for their involvement in border security. They participate in immigration related work under the federal Secure Communities program.

Taken together the sprawling border security apparatus operates away from the ready lens of the camera, across miles of highway, in the Gulf of Mexico and in the air; its presence felt by residents, but more difficult to capture without a wide gaze.

Several hours after he was detained, Jose Antonio Vargas was released with a notice to appear before an immigration court, which, given court backlogs, could be years away. Unlike many other unknown aspects of the border enforcement system, his immigration court experience will likely unfold under the sharp scrutiny of the press.

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Michelle Garcia is CJR's correspondent for Texas. She is working on a book about masculinity, myth, and the U.S.-Mexico border. GarcĂ­a reported from The Washington Post's New York bureau for three years and her work has appeared in numerous publications. She is the director and producer of the PBS film Against Mexico: the Making of Heroes and Enemies. Follow her at @pistoleraprod or email Tags: , , , , , ,