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Link Roundup: Global Challenges, Global Ethics

My U.S. Passport

Today's post is from Aviva Chomsky, professor of history and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State College. The author of several books—including her latest, "They Take Our Jobs!" And 20 Other Myths About Immigration—Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants' rights issues for over twenty-five years.

During a week in Nogales in March, working with the No More Deaths documentation project, I must have met several hundred deportees. They were arrested for a crime that no U.S. citizen can commit: entering the United States without official permission. Only people who are not U.S. citizens need special permission to enter U.S. territory.

When you get your U.S. passport in the mail, it comes with a flyer that says "With your U.S. passport, the World is Yours!" Holders of the U.S. passport are accustomed to simply arriving at the border of another country, showing their passport, and easily crossing in. Rarely, they have to apply beforehand for a visa. If they pay the fee and fill out the application correctly, the visa is routinely granted. Holders of a U.S. passport tend to believe that freedom to travel is their birthright, a view reinforced by the literature that comes with their passport. For the cost of a plane ticket, they can leave the country they were born in any time they want.

For most of the world's population, though, freedom to travel is a distant dream. They can't leave the country of their birth because instead of that magical ownership of the world that comes with a U.S. passport, they are citizens of countries in Africa, Latin America, or most of Asia. Many of them are also poor, and people of color. They can't leave their countries because no other country will let them in. Least of all the United States. We live in a kind of global apartheid, where whole countries—almost all of them in the First World—shut themselves off to travelers, while assuming that their own citizens have the right to travel anywhere they choose. Meanwhile the citizens of other countries—mostly in the Third World—can't travel at all because no country will let them in.

They Take Our Jobs book cover From the comfort of their First World homes, many citizens of the United States assume that anyone can get a visa to travel legally to any country. If someone comes and/or lives in the U.S. without proper documentation, they assume, it must be because they simply failed to follow the correct procedure. If only there were such a procedure to follow!

I even heard a Massachusetts state legislator express this assumption, in a hearing on the question of allowing undocumented students to be considered state residents for the purpose of paying in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. He interrogated a panel of students there, members of the Student Immigrant Movement who had come to testify in favor of the bill. All were undocumented, and each one explained how and why they had ended up in that status.

"What's your status now?" the legislator asked them. "I'm undocumented," one Brazilian student answered, bewildered. "Why don't you start the process to become a citizen?" he continued. "I can't," she explained. "Why not?" he asked, revealing his profound ignorance of immigration law. Just as the law forbids most residents of the Third World to travel here—by requiring visas, but refusing to grant them—it also forbids virtually all people who are undocumented to regularize their status.

I got a small, tiny taste of the arbitrary nature of these laws and rules last week, when I was denied, along with my father, entry into the Israel-occupied territories. As with most of the countries they may choose to travel to, U.S. citizens don't need a visa to enter Israel or the territories. (The border between the Occupied West Bank and Jordan is policed by Israeli authorities.) If you hold a U.S. passport, the world belongs to you—you can simply arrive at the border, show your passport, and get your visa stamped in the booklet.

But not, apparently, if you are Noam Chomsky, if you hold opinions that the Israeli government "has a problem with" (in the words of the Ministry of the Interior official who interrogated us at the border), and if you're going to speak at a Palestinian university. After four hours of intermittent questioning and consultations between the official at the border and his superiors at the Ministry, we were given the Ministry's final verdict: Entry denied.

An international outcry ensued. Friends, organizations, and the press expressed their outrage.

From the perspective of Palestinian rights, the incident was indeed an outrage: a further tightening of Israel's noose on academic freedom in the West Bank.

For me, it seemed to represent some cosmic justice that, after all of my work with deportees, I was finally a deportee myself. But my experience being deported only highlighted the power of my U.S. passport, and the unfairness of a world in which freedom to travel is determined by where one happens to be born.

I rode to the border openly in an air conditioned cab, confident that I would be treated with respect and admitted to any country I wanted to enter. During the four hours we were "detained," we sat in a comfortable lounge with constant offers of fresh coffee or ice water, a cafe right outside the door, and a computer complete with wireless internet access. (I enjoyed sending out a few emails signed "from the Allenby Bridge, Avi"). All of the officials who we dealt with were polite, and even apologized for the wait and for the decision they were eventually obliged to report to us. We were able to call our cab back to pick us up and take us back to Amman. And the many interview requests that poured in over the subsequent hours confirmed that the infringement of our freedom to travel was a matter worthy of international condemnation.

Just a month earlier, I worked with several other local universities to invite a Venezuelan National Assembly member to speak in the Boston area. Of course, since he is Venezuelan, he had to request a visa ahead of time. Despite the fact that he's an elected official, he can't expect to come to the border and be let in the way I am in most countries. In a common tactic, the Embassy delayed its response until after the dates set for the talks, thus preventing his appearance. This was in fact the third time that I've been involved with an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a visa for a speaker from Latin America.

Most of the press coverage of our denial of entry into Israel focused, rightly, on the issue of freedom of speech. A few articles, even more to the point, emphasized the arbitrary exercise of Israeli occupation authority over a Palestinian university, which made a mockery of supposed Palestinian autonomy. But most also took for granted the fact that U.S. citizens in general enjoy the right to an almost unlimited freedom to travel—a right denied to most of the world's citizens. Certainly, the deportees I met in Nogales would have been a bit bemused to see the international outcry over the version of "deportation lite" that I experienced.