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None Shall Pass
March 2, 2017 -- After a long transpacific nonstop a couple years ago, the aircraft doors opened in Newark and a gaggle of groggy passengers was suddenly confronted by a phalanx of Customs agents. They positioned themselves at either side of the passenger bridge and struck their best Monty Python None-Shall-Pass Black Knight poses.
One by one our passports were examined for, well, who knows what? The Customs agents never said. When they were satisfied with a passenger's papers, they nodded and the flyer was allowed to pass, head for the exits and, of course, get IDed again at the traditional Customs and Immigration barrier.
As I waited my turn to explain to the Black Knights of Customs and Border Protection that I didn't actually know the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow, I chatted up the flight attendant.
"Ever see this before?" I asked.
"Every once in a while," she said. "But they never tell us why they are checking IDs or what they are looking for. I've never seen anyone detained, either."
Then, without prompting, the flight attendant lowered her voice and said, "I think it's all for show."
I thought about that night a lot this week after news broke that another phalanx of None-Shall-Pass Black Knights positioned themselves at a passenger bridge at New York/Kennedy Airport and proofed flyers disembarking from a flight that originated in San Francisco.
Yeah, that's right. A bunch of domestic passengers on a Delta flight from San Francisco got hassled upon arrival in New York. And the CBP position on what happened has changed so frequently and so fundamentally over the last week that we all must ask ourselves what's going on.
As you can see by this Rolling Stone piece, CBP first referenced a nonexistent law to justify its action. And then it said it had no other answers. Then it backtracked and claimed the ID check was voluntary and that its agents never struck the None-Shall-Pass pose I saw several years ago when trying to disembark an international flight. And then it claimed no one was required to comply and show their papers.
Bullshit. And, by the way, dangerous as hell.
As someone who lived it, I can tell you that you don't argue with Customs agents when they do the None-Shall-Pass Black Knight bit at your aircraft's door. International flight or domestic, legal or not, if they ask for your papers, there's no maybe about it. There's no voluntary about it. They will hassle the crap out of you, fart in your general direction and taunt you a second time if you refuse even when the agents are wrongly IDing a domestic flight.
As much as I've liked CBP in the past, something has snapped at the agency in the last 30 days.
Customs is reducing famous Australian children's book writers to tears. It is prepared to deport Holocaust scholars because it doesn't understand its own rules. Muhammad Ali's son, born in Baltimore, is hassled and humiliated because his name is suspicious. Legal visitors are required to prove they are software engineers--and prove it to people who can barely work a computer keyboard. Natural-born U.S. citizens, literal rocket scientists, get the third degree and are told to give up secrets on their phones.
This, fellow travelers, is not good. This, fellow flyers, is dangerous. This is bureaucracy run amok. I don't care about your politics, but no one can support this. How does breaking our laws uphold the rule of law? And, of course, this is not making us safer.
Like it or not, like President Trump or not, this pivots seamlessly to the Executive Order of January 27. Badly written and legally deficient, the order itself has been largely halted. Yet the Wild West mentality that it has unleashed in some of our Customs Black Knights is truly frightening.
All the CBP agents I've spoken to this week say they are reacting to an environment where "toughness" is now prized by the bosses above them. But I don't see how that justifies the cruelty and abuse being dished out.
More to the point, it all smells of a politics, not patriotism or protection.
When the order was signed on January 27, just seven days into the Trump Administration, the government insisted that there could be no delay in its promulgation or implementation. So logic would have dictated that as soon as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the order, the Trump Administration would fight back for the purported good of the country.
Yet despite repeated promises by everyone from low-level apparatchiks to the President himself, no further action has been taken. The Trump Administration told the Court that it needn't continue hearings on the Executive Order because it would be imminently replaced.
But no replacement has come. The President ostentatiously rejected a Homeland Security assessment saying a ban based on citizenship wouldn't be effective. And when asked why no replacement order has come this week, nearly a month after the original was stayed by the courts, the Administration implied that it was waiting for a period of maximum publicity.
Really? In the course of five weeks, we've gone from "this can't wait" to "let's wait 'til we can get a big publicity hit."
I'm actually thinking we may never see another Executive Order on the topic. Yet in the meantime, we've unleashed the worst of the federal bureaucracy and they are proofing us on domestic flights and then scurrying behind nonexistent laws and bogus claims of voluntary compliance.
We will regret it if we become a society that employs an endless series of None-Shall-Pass Black Knights who spend more time hassling us than keeping us safe.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.