Fault Lines
19 May 2017

Daniela Vargas’ Punishment for Speaking Out

March 3, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Shortly after Daniela Vargas finished giving a speech about the impact of deportations on families, ICE took her into custody.

Moments after an immigrant spoke out about her fears of deportation, she was detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Daniela Vargas, 22, was detained by ICE agents Wednesday morning, shortly after speaking at a news conference in downtown Jackson, according to her attorney, Abby Peterson.

The news conference was hosted by local immigration attorneys, churches and the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance to bring attention to families impacted by deportation.

This situation is remarkable for obvious reasons. It’s frightening both for those living in fear of deportation themselves as well as people who tend to be bothered by the government swooping in and detaining people who speak out against the government for the very thing about which they’re speaking out against the government.

The timeline and circumstances are about as awful as you could imagine.

As a friend drove Vargas away from the news conference, their vehicle was pulled over by ICE agents, Peterson said.

Agents reportedly told Vargas, “You know who we are, you know what we’re here for.”

Vargas was immediately detained and taken into custody. Her friend was released.

Unless you’re a true believer in the strictest possible law and order, you probably feel like there’s something more than a little worrisome about that series of events. The most tolerant authoritarian might see the conference itself as a slap in the face, though. Vargas flaunted the fact she was in violation of the law in an effort to attack the law, after all. Moreover, law enforcement even gave her a big break in the past:

Vargas’ brother and father were detained outside their home by ICE agents in February. Vargas hid in the closet. When she was discovered by agents, she was temporarily handcuffed and then released.

Why they didn’t detain her just like they did her brother and father is anyone’s guess. Maybe they weren’t fully aware of her situation. Maybe they felt bad. Either way, admitting to her immigration status during a press conference wasn’t going to make her any friends. For people who don’t see immigration laws as any different than traditional criminal and regulatory laws that could deprive someone of their liberty, watching Vargas speak out and then get arrested is probably akin to seeing some guy post a video of himself committing a burglary on Facebook only to find the police waiting at the door of his home, which happened to be the address listed on his profile.

The difference between that and what happened to Vargas, of course, is that there isn’t a nationwide political debate about burglary or other traditional criminal laws. Most laws don’t typically implicate a complicated web of criminal and civil provisions coming from all sorts of different sources. People don’t usually break other laws against their will as children, and most offenses aren’t ongoing ones you can commit passively. There haven’t been executive actions staying enforcement of most other laws, nor are there many other laws as fiercely opposed as the current immigration regime. Taking an exceedingly black and white approach, it’s easy to say that ICE agents had authority to lawfully detain Vargas and just did their job. But that ignores the big picture.

This whole situation leaves a lot more questions than answers, and one of the biggest is, “what the hell were the organizers of the conference thinking?” Did the immigration lawyers involved really have no clue this might happen? Even if ICE had never done something like this before, had they not been watching the news? Were there no speakers available who wouldn’t be exposing themselves to possible detention by speaking?

On top of that, whom did they think they were impressing by having someone in Vargas’ position speak? It’s only going to intensify the anger from die-hard anti-immigrant folks, and Vargas’ is a high price to pay for preaching to the choir. It’s hard to say how effective her speech really was for people on the fence.

It seems that crowds demand people with credentials as much as they do people with a compelling message. Prostitutes give speeches about how sex work should be legal, discussing their experiences. Talking about those experiences routinely involves the speaker admitting to crimes. We also constantly hear from former drug addicts who think drugs should remain illegal and discuss their prior illegal drug use and its effect on their lives. In the latter example, law enforcement probably wouldn’t arrest them anyway because their message is to obey and maintain the status quo, but neither example is realistically going to result in an arrest. There’s discussion of prior crimes but no corpus delicti, no material substance of the crimes discussed. The problem with Vargas is that her presence alone subjects her to government action. If she’s present someplace in this country, authorities just have to decide they’ve had enough and take her away.

In many ways, Vargas is as sympathetic as they come. She had no control over coming here, as her parents brought her when she was only seven and she’s been here ever since. She even claims she only overstayed her visa because she couldn’t afford the renewal application fee. Those things still may bother people who take a hard line on immigration, though. She’s stuck in a Catch-22 with them. Either she isn’t just here without permission but also didn’t even pay to apply to get permission, or she’s going to have to pay to apply for permission with money that some people believe she shouldn’t be allowed to earn.

This might anger anti-immigration folks too:

Vargas told the crowd, despite her father and brother likely being deported, she still hoped to live and work in America.

And this:

Before being detained Wednesday, Vargas said she planned to move out of state with her mother and pursue her dream of being a university math professor.

“Now, I’m not so sure my dream will continue to develop,” she said. “A path for citizenship is necessary for DACA recipients but also for the other 11 million undocumented people with dreams.”

Although most people seem to fall in the middle, the immigration debate seems to involve one side that, at its worst, wants immigrants gone unless they go through a difficult process that’s sure to result in immigrants only coming from certain places. Those happen to be the places nobody wants to leave.

Those ultra-anti-immigration people also don’t think the dreams of people like Vargas should be permitted, and they’re likely to be just as angry about her wanting to become a professor, thinking she’s going to take taxpayers’ money for her education and salary, as they are about her evading the law, going into hiding out of state with her mother. On the other side are people who really, really want to hear from Vargas and will be thoroughly moved by her words.

What happened to Vargas looks awful, as it’s frightening to see someone taken away so swiftly after speaking out. The problem is that it’s really just strict enforcement of the law. Hers isn’t so much a story about how awful one side of the immigration debate is or about how we’re rapidly marching toward totalitarianism. If you’re upset about it, understand that your perspective isn’t always going to prevail. The real message is that having the laws doesn’t mean we should always use them.

5 Comments on this post.

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  • Mario Machado
    3 March 2017 at 11:41 am - Reply

    I’ve read that her DACA status had expired because she couldn’t come up with the $495 renewal fee, that she had employment authorization from USCIS, and that she worked as a manager at a small store.

    If all that is true, it was extremely irresponsible on her part not to pay the fee to renew her DACA status. Because of that, she became a sitting duck, and made it abundantly clear that she was one when she did the speech.

    As for the ICE folks being cold as ice, that’s what they do. Prepare for the worst. You gotta take them at their word and, if possible, heed a boxing referee’s pre-fight advice: “protect yourself at all times.”

    Good post Matt.

  • Dana
    5 March 2017 at 4:02 am - Reply

    Actually, her “punishment” is for not being a legal immigrant or resident of this country.

    Her “punishment” is not for speaking out, as you say.

  • Daniela Vargas Paid a Fair Price
    6 March 2017 at 9:01 am - Reply

    […] 6, 2017 (Fault Lines) – My colleague Matt Brown wrote a clever post about Daniela Vargas, an illegal immigrant and former Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals […]

  • Michelle
    7 March 2017 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    Supposedly, at least as I have understood it, undocumented people living in the United States are NOT to be targeted, or detained (let alone deported), unless they have committed a crime. What crime did Daniela Vargas commit (other than speaking out in public against immigration policies… which is NOT a crime)?

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      7 March 2017 at 4:52 pm - Reply

      Er… no, you must’ve misunderstood something. It’s true that Obama prioritized criminals for deportation, though the implementation of that plan left something to be desired. But the deportation clock ticks for everyone. Even DACA and DAPA are only temporary reprieves.