A Fine Whine

I, Visa

Why is U.S. immigration terrorizing British reporters?

Last week a British reporter was detained by immigration officials and then expelled from the United States for traveling here without knowing that the visa rules had changed. More precisely, she didn’t know that a decades-old unenforced rule was suddenly being enforced against friendly tourists long accustomed to entering the country without a visa at all. Elena Lappin, a freelance journalist from the United Kingdom (who has written for Slate), was stopped at Los Angeles International Airport, subjected to a body search, handcuffed, frog-marched through the airport, and then held in a cell at a detention center overnight—all because she dared travel to the United States without a special journalist visa. There has been a rule on the books since 1952 requiring foreign journalists to obtain special “I visas,” but foreign journalists say it was invariably ignored by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials who required only that citizens of friendly countries apply for a visa waiver, an exemption allowing most residents of 27 enumerated countries to visit the United States for business or pleasure for up to 90 days without jumping through any INS hoops.

No more. When the INS was folded into the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003, the I-visa rule began to be enforced in earnest, sometimes, resulting in at least 15 journalists from friendly countries being forcibly detained, interrogated, fingerprinted, and held in cells overnight—with most denied access to phones, pens, lawyers, or their consular officials. Their friendly welcome at the detention center included lights that shone all night long and video surveillance of the entire cell, often including toilets. David James Smith of the Times of London described being denied a blanket, coffee, or a pen during his overnight detention last March. When he first learned he was being denied entry on an immigration technicality, he madly assumed he’d be put up in an airport hotel.

These reporters are not enemy combatants. They are not chroniclers of scathing injustices of the Bush administration. One Australian reporter was here to interview Olivia Newton-John. (God knows, someone has to.) She reported being “body searched and groped” by immigration and customs officials. Ten French and British journalists were here to report on last summer’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video-game industry’s annual trade show. Unless Super Mario Brothers are secretly accumulating weapons of mass destruction, this mistreatment of journalists from allied countries serves as yet another example of overzealous, unbridled discretionary excesses by government officials who still can’t figure out who we’re fighting in the War on Terror.

The INS (now known as Citizenship and Immigration Services) has a long, proud tradition of marrying limitless government discretion to obscure Byzantine rules that cannot be understood through ordinary inquiry. Virtually anyone in this country on a visa is in violation of some regulation, although any attempt to understand or clarify one’s status is systematically thwarted by an agency that cannot be reached by telephone and cannot be visited in under seven hours. The INS has for years contributed to widespread ignorance and punished it after the fact.

What’s wrong with requiring foreign journalists to have a special press visa, you ask? Why shouldn’t they have to show that they are here for good and benign reasons? Well, for one thing, we don’t require most tourists from these friendly nations to obtain visas. Indeed, some of the reporters locked up and deported from LAX had already been allowed through immigration as tourists and were only nabbed later when they or their colleagues copped to being journalists. Singling out reporters for greater scrutiny than ordinary sightseers suggests there is something uniquely dangerous about journalism. As Lappin points out in her piece on her ordeal, only countries like Cuba, Syria, Iran, and North Korea demand that reporters have special visas. As James Michie, the public affairs officer at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, told me this afternoon, this happens in other countries, too; another journalist reported to him that she was frequently treated this way in Yugoslavia. America: Striving to be more like Yugoslavia each day.

Far worse than the fact that we’re singling out reporters for abuses: Since when is the U.S. government in the business of accrediting journalists—foreign or domestic? What possible journalistic standards must be met in order to prove to the INS that one is enough of a journalist to merit a press visa? The list of enumerated requirements would make it impossible for a reporter from an allied country to cover a breaking story in a timely way. Reporters must now provide a letter from their employer detailing their assignment and place their hope in the broad discretion afforded immigration authorities. Of course, freelancers just looking for a story without a contract in their pocket are presumably out of luck, too. Unless, of course, they elect to lie and call themselves tourists with super-big cameras. The state cannot be in the business of acting as arbiter of who’s allowed to come and write about America.

Predictably, Homeland Security officials insist that the rule-tightening is all vitally important to fighting terror and that it’s the journalists’ own fault if they don’t know the new rules. “It’s not about the occupation of a passenger that’s coming into the United States,” Ana Hinojosa, director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at LAX, told the Los Angeles Times this week. “We are concerned that every foreigner has the proper visa to enter the country,” ignoring the fact that non-journalist foreigners from these 27 countries need not have a visa to enter. Similarly, Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the paper that these reporters must be cuffed and searched “for their safety, for the safety of our officers and the safety of any other individuals who might be in the vehicle.” The theory being that they must be terrorists since we treat them that way.

By way of full disclosure, I add that I am in this country on a green card. You should also know that over my almost 20-year residence in this country, I have been told by more than one INS official that I have absolutely no rights here and that, visa or no visa, my residence here can be terminated at their discretion.

In the past, I have been given 10 days to pack up and leave the country, despite the fact that I expressly qualified for a visa that could be obtained only by crossing a border and asking a customs officer to give it to me. (The INS worker I had waited for hours to speak to earlier that week assured me that I qualified but would put nothing in writing, promising it would be a mere formality at the border.) I have learned to transport the text of the immigration statute in my carry-on bag after an immigration officer tried to tell me that “JD” as written in the law did not apply to my particular graduate degree. I have lined up at 5 a.m. outside INS offices. (If you get there at 6, you’ll never be served.) I have sat on hold with automated voice systems for over an hour. (I have only once, in two decades, reached an actual human life form at the INS.) And I was told by one very courteous INS officer at the Vancouver airport (no name, no badge, not even upon request), as he grudgingly handed me a visa, “What the hell would the United States do without all you Canadians coming in on [this particular visa] to do our work?” Rush Limbaugh’s job having already been taken, he had clearly found a home for himself at the INS. When I called his supervisor from the gate to report this exchange, she told me she’d witnessed the entire conversation and he’d done nothing improper.

I can detail these incidents only because I wrote a lot of letters to the INS that were never sent, precisely because, as was so often pointed out to me, I am here at their sufferance.

Not every agent who works at the INS is a power-mad maniac. In fact, I’d wager that most are good people doing good jobs. But as recent events in Iraq have shown, if you are a born bully and the state gives you virtually limitless discretion to bully, you will likely rise to the challenge. All the more so if you’re employed by an arm of the government in which the working presumption is that abusive behavior achieves better results than accommodation. And no one wants to make it easy to work or study or stay in the United States.

Long before 9/11, the INS was a Third World agency operating in a First World nation. Making it virtually impossible to access the services, information, and assistance for precisely those constituents it purports to serve is the way it keeps us sweaty foreigners out in the first place. And since we have no meaningful rights anyhow, and we are all here at its mercy, there is no way to report abuses of that power. I write this wondering if tomorrow I’ll be filing the first in a series of hilarious “Dispatches From Immigration Jail.”

In the trial of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, the University of Idaho graduate student now being prosecuted for supporting terrorism, the indictment charges him with visa fraud for, among other things, failing to list “all professional, social and charitable institutions to which you belong.” Students on F-1 and J-1 visas are similarly obliged to inform authorities of every change of address (including summer addresses) while in the country. No foreign student I have met even knew of these requirements (I didn’t), and if they did know, nobody could have figured out whom to report to and how. 

Immigration law cannot serve as a pretext for treating people badly. It’s inefficient and it achieves nothing but international ill will. The Department of Homeland Security has far greater worries than Australian writers and French tech-nerds. The INS sent Mohammed Atta’s student-visa approval six months after he crashed a plane into the World Trade Center. We need to start differentiating between targeting real terrorists and terrorizing random targets. This is no way to win a war.