The New York Times

July 4, 2004

Your Country Is Safe From Me


Two months ago, I traveled from London to Los Angeles on assignment for a British paper, The Guardian, believing that as a British citizen I did not require a visa. I was wrong: as a journalist, even from a country that has a visa waiver agreement with the United States, I should have applied for a so-called I (for information) visa. Because I had not, I was interrogated for four hours, body searched, fingerprinted, photographed, handcuffed and forced to spend the night in a cell in a detention facility in central Los Angeles, and another day as a detainee at the airport before flying back to London. My humiliating and physically very uncomfortable detention lasted 26 hours.

I've since learned that mine was not an isolated case: since March 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security became responsible for immigration and border patrol, 13 foreign journalists were detained and deported in a similar manner in that year, all but one at the Los Angeles airport. The visa requirement itself and the treatment of journalists by American authorities are deemed untenable by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and by Reporters Without Borders. Both organizations have sent letters of protest to Tom Ridge, who heads the Department of Homeland Security, as well as to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Possibly as a result of this concentrated action, Robert Bonner, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, recently announced that journalists arriving without an I visa may be allowed a one-time entry but should be advised that they must apply for it for any future journeys. ''We are an open society,'' Bonner declared, ''and we want people to feel welcome here.''

This claim could be disputed by American businesses, which have lost $30.7 billion in the last two years because of visa delays and denials for their foreign partners and employees, according to a survey sponsored by eight business organizations. With or without the special visas, journalists are now scrutinized by the Department of Homeland Security, which questioned me in detail in Los Angeles, and by the State Department, which -- when I reapplied to travel back to the United States -- asked me whom I was going to interview in the United States, what the nature of my article was and even what fee I would be paid. There is a turf war between the two departments, usually won by the former. Even with a visa, one can be turned back at any port of entry.

American journalists working abroad, especially in free countries, are not accustomed to monitoring of this kind. By requiring foreign journalists to obtain special visas, the United States has aligned itself with the likes of Iran, North Korea and Cuba, places where reporters are treated as dangerous subversives and disseminators of uncomfortable truths.

In June 2003, for example, the State Department cabled all its diplomatic and consular posts, urging them to pay attention to ''an increasing number'' of journalists being denied entry. ''Aliens coming to practice journalism are not eligible on the visa waiver program or a business visa,'' it explained. ''Journalists who attempt to do so . . . are subject to removal.''

Ostensibly, this information is meant to apprise visa applicants of the rules of entry and spare them later distress. Still, the approach seems that of a police state with a repressive ideological agenda.

But in truth, journalists and writers are not being singled out for their political views. Take the case of the British novelist Ian McEwan. Laura Bush admires his books so much that he was invited to a lunch she had with Prime Minister Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing Street in the fall of last year. Several months later, when McEwan traveled to the United States via Canada to address an audience of 2,500 in Seattle, he was refused entry by American immigration officials at the Vancouver airport. (Their explanation was that his $5,000 honorarium was too high for him to qualify for the visa waiver program.) The 36-hour crisis -- which would have resulted in his detention had it occurred on American instead of Canadian soil -- was finally resolved with the help of British and American diplomats, members of Congress, journalists and immigration lawyers.

''We don't want to let you in, we don't think you should come in,'' McEwan recalls being told by an immigration official. ''But you have powerful allies and we don't like the publicity.'' McEwan began his Seattle talk by wryly thanking the Department of Homeland Security ''for protecting the American public from British novelists.'' Today, he says, ''I think what has happened is that this department has been spawned in short order and is pumped up with a mission. But the people on the ground have not been properly informed about the legislation by Washington, and tend to make up the rules on the spot. It suggests the same gung-ho carelessness that typified the postinvasion effort in Iraq. I'm not immune to the argument that you need Homeland Security to help counter terrorists; America has a lot of enemies, more now than ever. But this sort of thing increases its isolation.''

The ordeal endured by the Canadian novelist and Booker Prize nominee Rohinton Mistry is more disturbing still, because it raises the question of racial profiling. Mistry abandoned a speaking tour in the United States in 2002 because of the treatment he and his wife received at a number of airports. They were stopped and interrogated ''to the point where the humiliation for him and his wife became unbearable,'' a representative of his American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, told the Globe and Mail of Toronto. Brent Renison, an attorney in Portland, Ore., and an immigration law specialist who worked with McEwan, points to some of the excesses committed by immigration officials. ''Rohinton Mistry was born in India, not a 'special registration' country, and is a Canadian citizen, entitled under the current rules to avoid the program of fingerprinting and photographing upon entry on a visa waiver.''

As it happens, these difficulties predate 9/11. The minuscule print warning after the signature line on the visa waiver form, stating that ''you may not accept unauthorized employment; or attend school; or represent the foreign information media during your visit'' first appeared in the early 1990's, when the visa waiver program itself was introduced (initially in pilot form) for 27 countries, including mine. ''The I visa was always implemented,'' says Danielle Sheahan, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection. When I told Sheahan that I had felt discriminated against, she laughed: ''Well, you don't have to feel that way, because authors, who are supposed to be coming in under O visas, are also stopped and queried.'' Ian McEwan, she added, ''should have had an O1 Visa, which means he's outstanding in his field as an author.'' In fact, McEwan was entitled to earn a fee during his stay, and later received an apology.

The I visa was initially conceived against the background of the highly controversial McCarran-Walter Act, enacted in 1952 at the peak of the McCarthy era. One of the bill's co-authors, Senator Pat McCarran, boasted that the act was an effective screen against subversives. Opposition to the measure was fierce. The National Council of Churches called it ''an affront to the conscience of the American people.'' President Truman, whose veto of the statute was overriden by Congress, said its national-origins quota system smacked of the Nazi master-race philosophy. Brent Renison points out that the bill listed journalists as ''a new class of nonimmigrants'' and removed them from the visitor category. In any event, visas were denied over the years to major intellectual figures like Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes. As late as 1991, The New York Times reported that the State Department ''maintains a list of hundreds of thousands of aliens who are considered to have dangerous beliefs or intentions and ought to be kept out of the country.''

The Patriot Act revived much of the McCarran-Walter Act. It placed antiterrorism measures in a peculiar conceptual proximity to laws supporting the control and removal of undesirable aliens, although with a new emphasis: as dissident writers seem to have disappeared from the public sphere, journalists have become the new subversives, even when they have no agenda at all. This has created a sense of unease among American publishers and writers. ''I truly feel ashamed to be an American these days,'' Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux told me. The author and journalist Jack Miles, a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy, fears that ''American relations, diplomatic and cultural, with its closest allies are only somewhat less in need of repair than our relations with the countries of Muslim majority.''

While old and new ideology seemingly mesh within the Patriot Act, the truth is that in the name of fighting terrorism, it has transformed a free, open, inimitably attractive democracy into something resembling an insular fortress of Kafkaesque absurdity. Perhaps Kafka was wise to write his visionary novel ''Amerika'' without ever having visited it. Chances are that today he would not have received a visa.

Elena Lappin is the author of ''Foreign Brides,'' a short-story collection, and ''The Nose,'' a novel. Her journalism has appeared in Granta, Prospect and Slate.

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