February 10, 2006

Easy to Hate: Another Bush Legacy

The primary "argument" offered by the Bush administration in response to objections to its warrantless spying has been: "Trust us. We're only trying to protect you. We would never abuse our powers, or use them for nefarious purposes like personal revenge. Our motives are entirely pure. We're protecting you, and protecting America. Just trust us."

Even a mildly perceptive adult possessed of a modest degree of worldly experience recognizes this con very easily. In almost every instance, when someone with power responds to challenges to that power with, "Trust me," you can be fairly certain he's trying to get away with something. Bush supporters often tell critics of the administration's vastly expanded executive powers: "If you've got nothing to hide, what are you afraid of? Innocent people have nothing to fear." Fine. Let's turn that argument around, and use it against the Bush administration itself: "If you've got nothing to hide and your actions are entirely praiseworthy, tell us what you've been up to. At least tell the FISA court. If you've done nothing wrong, what are you so concerned about?"

Given the voluminous record demonstrating the Bush administration's capacity for distortion, misdirection and outright lying -- most significantly on matters of war and peace, but on numerous other subjects as well -- why anyone would trust them on even a very minor question is passing strange. Perhaps only a clinical psychologist could solve that mystery. (A specialty in dementia and related mental disturbances would probably come in handy.) But for purposes of what follows, let's stretch our capacity for fantasy and assume the Bush idolators are right: everyone highly placed in the Bush administration is pure of heart, possessed of a noble spirit, and motivated only by an unsullied dedication to doing the right thing for his country.

There remains a further significant problem with the "trust us" defense of government power. While major decisions of policy are made at the top, power is wielded and carried out by countless bureaucrats working throughout innumerable government agencies. The great majority of us never have direct contact with anyone in Washington. The person we need to be concerned about is the low-level bureaucrat -- an average man (or woman) who knows he has the force of massive governmental power behind him, and who also knows that you are virtually powerless. He's the person who may well hold the power of life or death over you.

Don't think I'm exaggerating. Consider:
One is a second grader in Manhattan. Over the protests of his American mother, immigration officials have been trying to deport him ever since he returned from a brief visit to his native Canada without the right visa. Another is an Irish professor of literature invited to teach at the University of Pennsylvania last month. He was handcuffed at the Philadelphia airport, strip-searched, jailed overnight and sent back to Europe to correct an omission in his travel papers.

Then there are the seven Tibetan monks who were visiting Omaha two weeks ago. After their church sponsor abruptly withdrew its support, their religious visas were revoked and a dozen immigration officers in riot gear showed up to arrest them.

The details in these cases vary, as do the technical visa infractions committed by each of the foreigners. But they all testify to a larger issue looming on the front lines of immigration enforcement: how low-level gatekeepers and prosecutors in the customs and immigration system are using their growing discretionary power over travelers who pose no security risk.
The story is sprinkled with some telling details about the pressures on these "low-level gatekeepers and prosecutors," and how those pressures can lead to ludicrous and sometimes genuinely awful results:
Though there are no statistics on such cases, the lawyers say they are seeing harsher treatment in situations involving paperwork errors or minor infractions. A political climate more hostile to foreigners, fears of being faulted for leniency and a lack of coordination among immigration agencies, they say, are leading officers to go overboard in cases that fit the government guidelines for prosecutorial discretion.


[A] case like José's [the second-grader] only confirms that without exceptional outside attention or high-level intervention, rigidity prevails, said Diane M. Butler, a Seattle lawyer who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association committee that works with Customs and Border Protection.

Most officers, she said, "are trying to do the right thing" but lack training in how to apply discretion. But, in some instances, she added, officers seem newly emboldened by campaigns against illegal immigration to express their resentment of foreigners by denying or delaying entry whenever possible. She said her business clients reported remarks like, " 'You're just trying to take jobs away from Americans.'"

Other immigrant advocates say that low-level employees often act out of fear. "The people on the front line are told that if they make a mistake, their jobs are gone,"
said Amy L. Peck, an immigration lawyer in Omaha who heads the association committee that works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "So that translates into this rigid — what one could also describe as extreme — policy of turning away and not using discretion in cases that scream for it."
Endowed with power, some people finally feel they can safely release pent up anger and resentment. For example, the Irish literature professor was initially told he would only have to pay a fine. But the immigration officer then changed her mind: he was told "that I was a university professor and should have known better." The professor was put in handcuffs and taken to jail. He had to return to Italy (where he teaches at the University of Trieste), and finally began his classes in the United States a week late.

But, you may be thinking, surely he could have lodged a complaint in some manner? No: "I was told that if I protested I would simply be deported and never be let back."

And of course, these kinds of experiences lead to another result, as Professor McCourt indicates:
[H]e said his experience had confirmed his European friends' worst fears about America.

"At the moment, America is easy to hate," he said, "So people say, 'That does it for me. I'm not going to risk that happening.' "
"America is easy to hate." Yet another part of the Bush administration's odious legacy.

UPDATE: More on this story, including a disturbing email.