Once again, what we don't know about the erosion of rights in this country can be as bad as what we do.
While Americans debate and litigate the Arizona law authorizing search and seizure of anyone police "reasonably suspect" to be an illegal immigrant, U.S. immigration officials on trains and buses up to 100 miles south of the Canadian border are confronting and sometimes strip-searching dark-skinned passengers whose only "crime" may be that they bought a public-transportation ticket to travel within the United States, The New York Times reports.
It's part of what some consider the new and improved border patrols to protect "the homeland" from potential terrorists. No matter that the kind of people being stopped, The Times reports, include an 60-year-old Ecuadoran-born U.S. citizen who carries a passport while visiting her sister in the Midwest because she's been stopped before and hassled without it. No matter that it includes a Taiwanese-born PhD student who, two days after delivering a paper at a Chicago conference, was taken from a train -- one that had never crossed any borders -- in Batavia, N.Y., strip-searched in a detention center and held, facing detention, because his visa had expired. No matter that a 21-year-old Long Island high school graduate was taken from the Lake Shore Limited in Rochester, N.Y., held for three weeks while her mother frantically tried to reach her and released at night at a rural Texas gas station.
These are not rumors. They are true stories, reported and told by The New York Times. They smack of overt racial profiling: How many blue-eyed Swedes and fair-skinned Russians do you think have been stopped on the trains and buses, whether they are gangsters, terrorists or simply PhD students? And they raise chilling reminders of World War II movies in which Nazi soldiers would walk down the aisles of trains looking for Jews.
"It's turned into a police state on the northern border," Cary M. Jensen, director of international services for the University of Rochester told The Times. He said foreign students, scholars and parents all have been questioned and, in some cases, jailed because the patrol did not recognize their legal status, the paper reports.
As I said, some Americans, frightened by our decade of war and fearful of anyone "different," will applaud the newfound vigilance of immigration officials. Some, no doubt, were among the tens of thousands who flocked to the Lincoln Memorial this weekend to hear calls that America return to a more honorable time when we didn't have to worry about foreigners (read non-white foreigners) crossing our borders. Just when that was I'm not sure since we are a nation founded by the poor and persecuted.
What the Tea Party folks may not be thinking is that this is how police states start. I wonder how they'd feel as white Americans (and the Tea Party is white) if police in Mexico pulled them off a train and threw them in jail because they'd forgotten to carry identity papers?
As for the rest of us, perhaps it's time to do more than yawn and turn on that new flat screen TV to catch pre-season football. My father fled Hitler's Germany on foot in 1935, walking through the mountains into what was then Czechoslovakia. If he taught me one thing it was this: What happened there can happen anywhere. That is why even as an American Army vet and longtime U.S. citizen, he never let his passport expire. He was always prepared to move on.
War and fear erode a country's moral compass and distort its sense of just action. Subtly for most, we've lived in a state of both for nearly a decade. And in the process -- a little domestic wire-tapping here, a few false arrests of foreign-born there -- we've begun to accept the significant erosion of the very principles on which this country was founded: its openness, its acceptance of difference, and its welcoming of those with little in their wallets, but with an ethic of hard work and a can-doism that's always allowed this country to be inventive and thrive.
These were captured in the Emma Lazarus poem taught to all school children and mounted at the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Be sure to tell those huddled masses not to ride the buses or the Lake Shore Limited routes from Chicago to New York. In the Buffalo sector alone, the border patrol reports arresting 1,050 on trains, buses and the stations of both in the six months between October 2007 and April 2008, The New York Times reports. That's roughly six people a day.
The Buffalo sector didn't say how many people were questioned and let go. Or how many of those arrests proved false.
You may shrug. Not your issue. I hope not. Me? I'll keep my passport current.