Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and famed immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas was just arrested near the south Texas border for attempting to move through a checkpoint without a government ID.
To report on the humanitarian crises faced by young undocumented workers like himself, he flew to the Rio Grande Valley and got stuck behind border security.
Vargas has been a close ally of Silicon Valley’s most outspoken immigration reform proponent, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, since his early profile on the rising Internet star in 2010, and then later as a partner on his policy reform efforts.
As a young undocumented immigrant, Vargas has become a symbol for why it’s hard to separate the issue of high-skilled immigration reform (which focuses on immigrants skilled in tech and other areas, mostly from Asia) from the issue of comprehensive immigration reform (which focuses on the wider population of immigrants, many of them low-skilled).
A supremely talented technology journalist, Vargas represents both the humanitarian crisis of child immigrants caught in legal limbo and the potential of gifted immigrants.
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“The students coming into this country are going to be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs,” said Zuckerberg as he introduced Vargas onstage last year at a special showing of his documentary, Undocumented. “Someone did a study lately that half the top tech companies are founded by immigrants. So these are issues that don’t just touch our part of the industry, but touch the whole country and touch what is right for us to do as a people,” he said.
Because President Obama has promised to deprioritize the deportation of young undocumented immigrants, Vargas has a (relatively) good chance of being allowed to remain in the country. He was near the South Texas border reporting on the humanitarian crisis of young immigrants like himself and was aware of some of the trouble he might run into.
On the policy front, Vargas does represent one of the two slices of immigration reform where Silicon Valley technologists might be able to make progress. The Valley’s sizable influence has made high-skilled visa reform a bi-partisan issue. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have broadly agreed to increase the number of high-tech H1-B visas and the creation of a visa for startup entrepreneurs.
More importantly, the leaders in the House of Representatives have begun pushing a separate bill that would allow young immigrants, so-called “DREAMers”, to become full-fledged citizens, attend universities, and create businesses.
Comprehensive Immigration reform, which encompasses border security, undocumented immigrants, and high-skilled visas, is dead for this year. And it may not pass next year, either.
But, it’s very possible that the bipartisan parts of immigration reform could pass in a series of separate bills next year. The hope for young workers does not entirely depend on the passage of a single bill.
Should Congress fail to pass comprehensive reform, Silicon Valley can still exert pressure to pass every portion of immigration reform that Republicans and Democrats can agree on.
How members of Congress (especially the leadership) react to Vargas’s detainment will indicate how committed they are to passing a bill to let young immigrants stay in the country. We’ll be watching closely.