Constitution-free zone

You are most vulnerable to having your civil liberties (supposedly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in the US constitution) ignored when you are entering the country, because the US Customs and Border Patrol (a division of the Department of Homeland Security) seems to have been given extraordinary powers in order to ‘protect’ the country.

The story of Craig Johnson provides a disturbing picture of what they can do to anyone just for exercising their constitutional rights in a way that the government does not like.

But such things can happen even if you never leave the country, because the DHS takes a very expansive view of what constitutes the ‘border’.

The ACLU says a “Constitution-free zone” exists within 100 miles of the US border, where DHS claims the authority to stop, search and detain anyone for any reason. Nearly two-thirds of the US population lives within 100 miles of the border, according to the ACLU, and the border zone encompasses scores of major metropolitan areas and even entire states.

Along the northern border with Canada, international students and scholars have sometimes been detained for weeks because they were not carrying all their documents with them when traveling within the country. Cary M. Jensen, director of the International Services Office at the University of Rochester, says that “For international visitors who see people boarding trains, pulling people off, asking for documents, it feels a lot like East Germany did when I visited in 1980.”

There will be those who criticize Jensen for hyperbole and say that even now the US is nowhere close to East Germany. They will be right. They will also be right when they point out that other countries routinely require people to carry identification papers with them. In Sri Lanka, for example, people can be randomly stopped at checkpoints and asked to show their identity cards and I always carry my passport with me when traveling in that country.

But the real issue is what kind of nation do we want the US to be? Is being better than Sri Lanka now or East Germany during the cold war the new standard for civil liberties?