Why is U.S. immigration terrorizing British reporters?
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.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of British passport by Corbis.