How Our Right To Travel Became a Bureaucratic Ordeal

Just decades after passports became mandatory for international travel, even domestic journeys have become a rule-bound hassle


Border Patrol checkpoint

Last week, my vacationing family was stopped at not one, but two, internal checkpoints along Interstate 8 in Arizona and California and questioned about our citizenship. I couldn't help but think of a passage from the late historian Paul Fussell's Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars, describing the now almost unthinkable ease and anonymity with which people crossed national borders just a century ago: "[B]efore 1915 His Majesty's Government did not require a passport for departure, nor did any European state require one for admittance except the two notoriously backward and neurotic countries of Russia and the Ottoman Empire." How far we've come from effortless transit across borders to interrogations by armed, sweaty men along domestic highways.

With the exception of brief periods during the Civil War and the First World War, passports have only been required of Americans for (most) foreign travel since 1941. As recently as eight years ago, I drove to and from a house rental in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, with no identification beyond my driver's license. Since 2009, though, a passport or similar document has been required to cross back into the United States from anywhere. After that second Border Patrol citizenship checkpoint in the desert, my wife suggested that we start carrying our seven-year-old son's passport domestically, in case we have to prove to some overbearing official that the kid is who we claim and has a right to be wherever he is. No law yet requires us to carry legal documents for Tony, but toting it seems a better idea than arguing with goons along a desert road.

U.S. passport
U.S. Government

Nominally an internationally recognized right, travel of all sorts has become creepingly bureaucratized in recent decades to an extent that has completely transformed the act of going from one place to another. Most of us adjust, treating the requirements as inevitable hassles — or even as the necessary security precautions that politicians and officials pretend they are. It's easy to forget how much has changed, until you're reminded of how much easier travel once was.

In the 1960s, "if you had a ticket, you could board a plane," and that ticket could be purchased with cash and little hassle (although at great expense, considering the regulated fares of the day). At the time, it wasn't unknown for a traveler to flag down a plane at the last moment to grab a seat, though that wasn't recommended procedure. When computer-industry millionaire and libertarian activist, John Gilmore, tried to board a flight in 2002 without showing identification, the result was a lost court case, and a TSA directive formalizing previously unofficial policy that travelers must present identity documents to fly.

"The biggest threat [to privacy] is public complacency," Gilmore told Reason's Brian Doherty. And it's true that identity checks at the border and TSA patdowns at the airport would be impossible if enough people refused to comply. Occasionally, people do push back. When the TSA started groping people and passing them through porn scanners, there was sufficient outrage to spark protests over Thanksgiving weekend in 2010. Three years later, the TSA has finally made the scanners a tad less revealing. But the machines are still in place, and they're still invasive. And you still have to show your papers.

In 1912, Fussell wrote, "D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley … simply went, leaving from Charing Cross Station and crossing to Ostend and thence proceeding to Germany" by train without carrying documentation. In the 1990s, I used to volunteer "John Smith" when Amtrak clerks asked my name as I paid cash for a weirdly greasy seat on their always unreliable vehicles for the run between New York City and Baltimore. Good luck getting one of those tickets now, without a government ID. "Security measures" have been tightened in line with "federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines." Why, yes they have — and that now includes random checks of carry-on luggage.

Greyhound bus

Even some private bus lines are getting nosy. Greyhound still leaves passengers relatively unhassled, but Peter Pan warns that "[v]alid photo ID confirming identity may be required during time of purchase and when boarding." Nevermind bus company policy, though. The TSA's VIPR teams are ready to check your ID and paw through your stuff at bus terminals, train stations and even truck stops, without warning. And they often bring friends from Customs, the Border Patrol and the local police.

Government officials have rationales for all of these intrusions, of course. Passports were first made mandatory during war years in fear of enemy spies (and fleeing conscription candidates). Airport security was tightened in response to hijackers. And then again after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (even if most of the restrictions make no sense and provide no improvement to safety). And citizenship checks and other border restrictions are intended to deter illegal immigration (apparently by making the United States a much less attractive place to live). In the end, though, spies and hijackers and terrorists are just modern iterations of threats that have always existed. They provide handy excuses, however, for monitoring and controlling our movements for government officials who see such restrictions as ends in themselves.

Travel restrictions aren't quite unavoidable, so far. The checkpoints at which my family was stopped are confined to the area within 100 miles of the border. The TSA VIPR searches of bus and train passengers are still rare. Car and bus trips in much of the country still retain the potential for privacy and anonymity.

But that privacy and anonymity can no longer be assumed. Frankly, it's increasingly a crapshoot to head for any destination with an expectation that your documents will remain unperused and your possessions unpawed. In a few years, my kid may not be the only one carrying his passport to ease his travels within the country. I guess that puts us on roughly the same footing, a century later, as the "notoriously backward and neurotic countries of Russia and the Ottoman Empire."

NEXT: Patriot Act Author Jim Sensenbrenner "Disturbed" by NSA's Collection of Verizon Phone Records

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  1. Nine eleven changed everything. Especially the Constitution.

    1. That’s a post 9/11 mindset. I think we’ve moved on to a post post 9/11 mindset.

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    2. b-b-b-but a statistically insignificant amount of terrorist activity!!!

      Remember, you can’t spell Statistics without STATIST.

  2. Interesting. I had no idea passports weren’t required for international travel until 1941.

    Most people don’t look at proving their identity as that big of a hassle, so I doubt there will ever be enough of a pushback to return the old ways.

    1. It was that goddamn free market that allowed plebes to afford international travel.

    2. And until hijackings in the 1970s, you could also carry a gun onto an airplane in a carry-on bag or a shoulder holster. People understood and accepted personal firearms as means of self-defense, rather than as the tools of offense that they became in the public mind, in the wake of widely publicized hijackings. We didn’t to walk through metal detectors or present bags and pocket contents for inspection until then, either. Customers should have made it NECESSARY for airlines and law enforcement to do their jobs without forcing changes in EVERYONE’s travel behavior. Because we did not, the restrictions and adjustments crept in and took hold, to the point where, now, I will never fly commercial airlines again, unless I have absolutely no other feasible method to travel in a particular circumstance, until extreme security policies are lifted.

    3. LynchPin: The original point of a passport (from the point of view of you as traveler) was to identify you as a citizen in the case that you needed assistance from your own government embassy or consulate, while traveling in a foreign land. Too bad our government didn’t leave it at that.

  3. Flew from Munich to Barcelona last year. Beautiful airport in Munich, everything is brand new and you feel like you are in a science-fiction movie. Went to check my bag at one of roughly 200 fully automated self-serve check-in desks, and received my boarding pass. All by simply supplying my booking confirmation code. No ID necessary. Went through security simply waving my boarding pass, again no ID. Arrived in Barcelona and exited the airport without any interference from anyone, again no ID necessary.

    Damn those Socialist Europeans. We better make sure not to become like them.

    1. A lot of places I went to in Europe in the ’80s and ’90s would stamp your passport if you said “tourist,” but not business. Souvenir, I guess. It was always the jackass backwaters that played 20 Questions and Colonoscopy.

    2. Spain and Germany are both within the Schengen zone. Normally, no checks at the border when you travel from one Schengen country to another.

      1. Well, last time I checked, California and Nevada were both in the zone called United states of America. No checks at the border last time I drove to Vegas. But I need an ID to travel to Vegas by plane. Do you get my point now?

    3. Not sure if he’s being sarcastic or just a plain idiot. Europe is not socialist, America is not capitalist. We’re all made up of mixed economies some more freer than others.

      1. Derpy; surely the gentleman is being facetious.

  4. Alas, Greyhound has caved in,too. My son and I took a red-eye from San Diego to Phoenix a couple of days ago. Not only did security serach all of our bags, we had to empty our pockets for a compulsory wanding. And of course, the Border Patrol paid the bus a visit enroute at 2:30am.
    It’s all a far cry from my first Greyhound experience in 1979 when my brother and I took a 4-week tour from NY to LA. Hip flasks, food, even doobies. All now verboten, needless to say….

    1. Greyhound also dropped their Ameripass last year. I don’t think it was a security issue; just that they were making less money than they used to.

  5. I flew into Germany recently from the US. 2 minutes in line and 30 seconds to clear customs and no questions beyond why was I there and how long are you staying. No follow up questions, just a quick glance at my passport, 2 questions and have a nice day.

    Flew back to US and it took 45 minutes in line and 3 minutes of questions and looking at my passport to clear customs to get back into my own country. Rude and sweaty agent and a clear FYTW attitude.

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  7. Hasn’t California had those fruit and vegetable checkpoints for a few decades? Freaked me out immensely the first time I drove through those (going LA to Vegas).

    1. Certainly since mid-’90s. More than half the time they just wave you through or they are closed. Worst that’s ever happened to me is a glance and a “carrying any fruits or vegetables from out of state”? But not sure what the extent of their authority is and if I’ve just been lucky.

    2. I was going to mention California agricultural checkpoints but you beat me to it. Hawaii also had (still has?) agricultural inspectors greeting arrivals at the airport.

    3. I always wonder what happens if you say at the California border, “Yes, I have some apples. How long does it take to inspect them?”.

  8. JD, thanks for the quote, I’ll be using it when writing future letters to my elected representatives on the matter. Good Job!

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  11. Car and bus trips in much of the country still retain the potential for privacy and anonymity.

    Good luck with that:…..e-scanners

    At this point, if you want to travel privately and anonymously you’ll pretty much have to walk or pedal a bike.

  12. “Arguing with goons.”

    That succinctly expresses the ‘war on terror,’

    America seems to have a surfeit of armed goons and is now starting to deploy them at home as readily as she was sending them off to ‘get some payback’ from Afghan goatherds and Iraqi shopkeepers.

    The problem is that those armed goons are as ‘united’ as any other group of people and the first time they ‘cross’ each other the rest of America’s going to pay for it. Even the monolithic military ‘culture’ is fractured economic self-interest.

    Fascistic security can’t bode well for peace in America.

  13. Last time I went back to the states I made entry and changed planes at Detroit. I went through FIVE checkpoints or inspections. Immigration, Customs, APHIS (because I had three hard-boiled eggs), a security check to board the plane (even though I never left the secure area), and an explosive residue check on my hands because I didn’t take my handkerchief out of my pocket. I would have missed my flight if it hadn’t been cancelled because of thunderstorms in the Philly area. It was more trouble than the security checks I went through changing planes in Seoul on the day a North Korean submarine ran aground in South Korea and the crew was still being hunted down.

  14. To quote the great Ron Paul: “Our Founding Fathers would be ashamed of us for what we’re putting up with!” As long as we collectively keep taking this kind of treatment laying down, the further the intrusion will become. Next, they’ll start knocking on doors randomly … then they’ll progress to knocking on all doors. The stepping-stone thing.
    When will we figure out how to pull together and say, “STOP!” ??? I fear it will be when it’s too late to do so.

    To know exactly where we are headed, let’s take a look at an excerpt from George Orwell’s vision for our future in his classic “1984”:

    “The government imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding, they simply swallowed everything! They were not difficult to control at all. Until they become conscious, they will never rebel. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face.”

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  21. Nine eleven changed everything. Especially the Constitution.

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