Border Buffoonery

New border controls test limits of intrusiveness


In this brave new world of global terrorism, the issue of reliable border control has acquired a new urgency. Yet there are also well-founded concerns that in the effort to keep out malefactors we will sacrifice so many of our liberties and alienate so many people around the world that the terrorists, to use a well-worn phrase, will indeed have won.

The debate on safety vs. privacy, particularly in airline travel, has been raging for years, ever since the airports first installed metal detectors and luggage screening. Today, this controversy focuses on biometric screening at borders—digital photos, fingerprinting, and iris scans. Legislation passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11 attacks requires visitors from countries whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa to have biometric passports which include fingerprints and iris identification features. (The deadline for implementing such passports has recently been extended by a year.) Since January, all visa-holders arriving at US airports are also required to be photographed and fingerprinted upon entry. Many denounce these measures as not only cumbersome but humiliating; others see them as an unfortunate necessity.

This conflict is not easily resolved—indeed, it probably can't be resolved at all. Despite my generally libertarian leanings, I do not get Orwellian jitters at the idea of biometric screening; all in all, having a machine scan my retina seems less intrusive than having an airport worker poke around the contents of my purse. I understand that these days, keeping people from entering the country with fake passports may be a matter of life and death.

What's far more troubling is that some measures adopted in the name of homeland security have the effect of burdening or even harassing foreign visitors without doing anything to enhance our safety.

For instance: In many countries, such as England, underage children currently travel abroad on their parents' passports. Now, the Department of Homeland Security has decided that every person entering the United States must have a separate passport regardless of age, starting on October 26. Travel agents in Europe are concerned that many travelers with children, unaware of the new rules, may fly to the United States only to be turned away at the border.

Can anyone explain what this requirement—which, in addition to the inconvenience, will impose extra financial costs on travelers—has to do with fighting terrorism? Has there been a rash of cases of middle-class British couples smuggling in Al Qaeda operatives disguised as their 12-year-old children? Can we all sleep easier now that we know we're safe from terrorist toddlers? What next? Special screening for terrorist pets?

Another major threat, apparently, comes from reporters and writers. Since May 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security took over immigration and border control, more than a dozen foreign journalists have been detained at the border and deported. They ran afoul of a requirement, virtually never enforced before, that journalists entering this country have a special "I visa" (I stands for information) even if they come from countries that have visa waiver agreements with the United States.

Elena Lappin, a freelance British journalist who has previously made several trips to the United States without a visa and had never had any trouble at the border, was one of the deportees. After being stopped at the Los Angeles International Airport, Lappin was interrogated for four hours, body-searched, fingerprinted, and then taken in handcuffs to a detention center—where she spent the night in a cell with no bed or chair and with a toilet in full view of anyone passing by—before being sent back to London. Lapin writes that when she reapplied for a visa, she was quizzed about whom she was going to interview in the United States, what she was writing about, and even what fee she would be paid for her article.

There is a lot of anti-Americanism around the world right now. Much of it is based on fear of American power, intolerance toward political and cultural differences, and prejudices and stereotypes about American society. Yet sometimes, our own behavior contributes to the "ugly American" stereotype. Our policies should not be driven by the desire to make everyone like us, but needlessly antagonizing the world is not a good idea either. Of course there are those, at home and abroad, who will denounce the United States as a paranoid bully for striking at terrorists and dictators. But do we want to live up to that label by picking on journalists and children?