My wife Joyce and I came home last week from a three-week trip to Manila in the Philippines, and to Hong Kong and Beijing in China.
Even though Philippines President Rodrigo Dutarte has an ongoing program of murdering drug dealers on the streets, and China has a penchant for locking up critics of the regime — even Nobel Laureates — and beating up and arresting journalists, there was only one place on that jaunt where I personally felt like I was entering a police state at the immigration checkpoint: the USA.
At the Manila airport, the woman checking our passports was polite and friendly… and unarmed. She examined our passports matching the photos to our faces, stamped them, asked how long we were staying and returned them to us, wishing us a good stay.
In Hong Kong the process was typically swift and efficient, even when the officer, also unarmed, asked about Joyce’s work visa, which had an eight-day expiration (she was performing a harpsichord concert for a fee at the government radio station RTHK).
At the Beijing International Airport, where we were entering a full-blown police state, there were fingerprints and photos taken by an immigration officer who was professional, but friendly enough… and unarmed.
But when we got home and back to US immigration after landing at Newark , the scene was altogether different. Every immigration agent had a sidearm as well as a taser on her or his belt. Signs everywhere said phone, cellphone and computer use while in the interminable lines was barred, and hostile-sounding loudmouthed immigration officers were quick to scold anyone who violated that rule by trying to call some relative or friend waiting in the greeting area or to snap a pic of someone with them in line.
If nothing else there is an enormous amount of waste going on in at US border crossings. The INS, a division of Homeland Security, doesn’t need a person trained in policing and weapons tactics to check someone’s travel documents. All they need is what most countries have at their entry points: a bunch of polite people skilled at scrutinizing travel documents, and then a few people doing guard duty who maybe should be armed, at least with non-lethal weapons (the notion of officers firing their revolvers in a crowded immigration hall is, let’s agree, pretty horrifying!).
Guns really don’t belong in an airport immigration area at all (in fact, tellingly, when you see them being worn by passport control personnel, it’s usually in a police state). I mean, really, think about it. If there is one place that you shouldn’t have to worry about someone pulling out a weapon, gun or knife or anything scarier than a nail-clipper, it would be an immigration hall full of people who have already gone through at least one airport security check and who haven’t even had a chance yet to get to their checked baggage where they might perhaps have stowed a weapon. We folks in the line waiting to get cleared for entry back into the US– or if we’re in the foreigner line, into the US for the first time — are surely the most certifiably unarmed bunch of people you’ll ever find outside of a Quaker meetinghouse So why all the INS goons with guns at their side scrutinizing our passports to see where we’ve been and asking what we’re doing in the US?
It’s really got to be an intimidation thing.
I was actually waiting to see if they would demand to see my cell phone and my computer. An increasing number of Americans are reporting that border officers have been doing that, downloading access to all their information and contacts. This invasive practice started happening during the paranoid post-9/11 Bush/Cheney administration, when it was mostly happening to people with Muslim-sounding last names, but it has been getting worse over the years, and has gotten dramatically more common, reportedly, since the election of President Trump, who has really amped up the anti-immigrant activities of the INS, and the general militarization of the border.
The chances that these draconian practices — the militarizing of passport checkers and the trasing of First Amendment rights to privacy of information — will prevent some future terrorist attack, which is after all the supposed justification for all this police-state activity at the border — including the introduction of finger-printing and facial-recognition software–is next to zero. After all, a potential terrorist certainly knows it is happening, and would be unlikely to risk either trying to commit a terror act in the waiting line, or trying to get into the US with incriminating information on a cell phone or computer.
In fact, given the security screenings that passengers have to go through before getting on a flight to the US, I’m willing to bet that there hasn’t been a single violent attack attempted in an immigration line involving a weapon in the historical memory of the Department of Homeland Security’s existence.
The irony of all this is that if someone did want to commit mayhem at an airport, the easiest way to do it these days would not be to attempt something in the line waiting to have one’s passport checked, but to wait until later, out at the baggage claim area, since there’s usually nobody around wearing a weapon as people wait for their bags to appear from their plane, and it’s not illegal to ship weapons in your checked baggage. (Granted that bags are routinely X-xrayed and checked for possible explosives before they’re loaded on a plane, but there’s nothing illegal about shipping your pistol, rifle or AR-15 in your checked baggage. A terrorist could thus just collect his bag, zip it open, whip out his gun and than spray the waiting passengers with bullets before any security guards could arrive to stop him.
If Homeland Security were genuinely concerned about public safety, they’d transfer those armed INS agents to serve as security guards in the baggage claim area, and leave intelligent, trained and — what the hell — polite and welcoming passport checkers to handle the paperwork end.
Meanwhile, I don’t know what the deal is with banning cell-phone use in the waiting line while having one’s travel documents checked. You can use your phone after the seatbelt light goes off on landing, while you’re still in the plane, and everyone’s on their phone walking to the passport line. What’s so special about the immigration lobby that cellphones and computers have to be banned?
It is clearly just another act of intimidation — something the INS goons can use to order people around.
I guess it makes a certain amount of sense. If you’re going to be entering, or in the case of us citizens, re-entering the United States, maybe it’s important to be reminded that you are entering a police state, so you’ll remember that, for example, if you’re stopped by a cop after you pick up your parked car and are driving home, you need to be ultra polite and obedient lest you be yanked from your vehicle and body-slammed on the pavement for asking too many questions, or for being too slow to show your license.
It’s just your government telling you, “Welcome home. Now behave yourself…or else.”
(Author Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective. Lindorff is a contributor to “Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion” (AK Press) and the author the author of “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)