Weary passengers rest in their seats on a train traveling across the country. When the doors open at a train station, armed agents of the state come aboard. They speak in commanding tones as they ask for documents, jarring sleeping passengers out of their rest. Those who don’t have their papers in order are removed from the train and detained. They might spend weeks in unpublicized detention facilities before their cases are reviewed by a judge. The agency conducting the sweeps will be rewarded with a sizable budget.
What is the setting for this story? It could be any number of places, but in this case it’s Buffalo, New York in 2010.
The New York Times recently published an article about United States Border Patrol sweeps on trains and buses traveling near, but not crossing, the US-Canada border (“Border Sweeps in North Reach Miles Into U.S.” August 29, 2010). Agents board trains, question people about their citizenship status, and detain those who do not produce documents that satisfy them. Those without the bureaucratically-correct papers can be placed in administrative detention, strip searched, sent to county jail, transferred to unmarked detention facilities around the country without notice to their families, and eventually see a judge weeks later.
In theory, passengers can decline to answer questions, but it is not clear how much agents will let the rules get in the way of exercising power.
Readers who are unfamiliar with immigration detention procedure should read about the secretive nature of detention centers not designed for long-term human habitation, as described in the Nation article “America’s Secret ICE Castles.” People unfortunate enough to not be able to get their government forms in order may face the pervasive abuse noted in the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee report “Voices of the Disappeared.”
The “papers, please” checkpoint image is frequently invoked to convey the idea of a police state or totalitarian regime. It’s a visible reminder of how far government will go to keep things under control, and that government considers all the people within its grasp to be its things. The lasting effects of producing documents at any time to prove to state agents that you are worthy to draw breath on their turf are real.
Social control is of course big business. Not only is there an entire offshoot of the military-industrial complex based on domestic control, but the individuals who administer government programs certainly profit when they expand their own power. The Rochester Border Patrol unit has grown tremendously as a result of its papers-please arrests on trains and buses.
There is a cost that cuts deeper than tax dollars. The costs to freedom affect everybody. Freedom of action is limited when freedom of association is usurped. Precedents are set for law enforcement and the power they come to assume over the rest of us. When targeted individuals are pressured out of the above-ground economy and avoid mass transit by pooling transportation resources, the state will counter by demanding new powers to monitor more areas of life.
The long-term solution requires raising the demand for freedom and the capability to meet that demand. The extent to which liberty is valued is the extent to which society operates for the benefit of all individuals who don’t value power above all else.