Monday, August 30, 2010

Arizona in Rochester

When I was working on the Encyclopedia of New York State for seven years, from 1998 to 2005, the Amtrak connection between Rochester and Albany was my second home. I knew all the conductors; the guy in the club car who always saved me the last can of sparkling water on the way home on Fridays. And train travel is my favorite means of locomotion. Jane would drop me off, all tired at 6 AM. Shut my eyes for a few minutes, and then I roused myself, and read blissfully for the next four hours.
Imagine my surprise, and my extreme consternation to read Nina Bernstein’s powerful article in the Times this morning on the role that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service now regularly plays on trains (and busses) on the Empire State corridor, on trains that never cross into Canada. Regularly going up and down the cars, asking people “what country were you born in?” a question that people are free not to answer, but rarely fail to give a response. And if you give the wrong answer—any country but the USA—you have to show your papers, and if you can’t satisfy the border guards, you are taking off the train In Rochester in 2008 over a 1,000 people were arrested. The numbers have dropped since evidently because immigrants are avoiding the busses and trains. In my seven years of traveling Amtrak, hundreds of trips, I was never once asked for my country of origin. Why have people been making such a fuss about Arizona when the same thing was going on in recent years in Rochester?
This will only end in one possible way, if the current trends continue. To avoid what is obviously going on, as Bernstein describes, wholesale racial profiling, everyone will have an internal national ID card, and everyone, on penalty of being taken away, will have to be able to produce it any time. And then this will be implanted with a chip, so the police and the government will be able to keep track of us. Okay, the latter is perhaps a bit paranoid, but we are going down the route of a permanent internal passport, sooner than later. Our native xenophobia, our unreasoning fear that every immigrant is a terrorist, our willingness to justify all sorts of abrogations of our rights in the name of security, will take away our rights, step by step. And unbeknowest to me, right here in little Rochester, the process seems well advanced.

1 comment:

Rob Snyder said...

At times, I've entertained thoughts on the value of a national id card. Our drivers' licenses and Social Security numbers already serve the same function. But along comes a story like this one and I feel wary.

There are many things about our country today that trouble me, but the thought of police asking people for their papers sets off all sorts of bad associations for me.

As the product of a childhood spent watching movies like "The Great Esacpe," wherein plucky Allied airmen try to outwit Gestapo agents looking for forged identity documents, I don't want to live in an America where people are badgered with the question, "Your papers, please?"