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Show Me Your Papers, New York!

The biggest risk created by bus travel used to be nothing worse than having a talkative, strange person in the next seat. Today a bus passenger in western New York might be awakened in the wee hours by a Border Patrol agent, flashlight in hand, who asks, “Where were you born?” If the passenger in question is white, that will probably be the end of the conversation, if not a search, an arrest or a deportation may take place.

The state of Arizona appeared to be in the forefront of upending constitutional protections of American citizens and others with its passage of SB1070. This legislation gives law enforcement the authority to ask anyone they encounter to prove legal residence in the United States. While the Arizona legislation has quite rightly generated great media attention, it turns out that this very same practice has been taking place in upstate and western New York for the past six years and could yet become the norm across much of the nation.

In 2004 a ferry service began operating between Rochester, New York and Toronto, Ontario, requiring the presence of the United States Border Patrol. The ferry service eventually went bankrupt and disappeared, but the Border Patrol not only remained, but increased its presence in the area. The patrol is allowed to operate within 100 miles of borders with other countries, and while the border is in the middle of lake Ontario, train and bus passengers from Buffalo to Rochester are being approached by agents and asked to present proof of legal residence. A total of 2,788 people have been arrested in recent years.

We see in microcosm in the upper reaches of New York what awaits Arizona and other states considering profiling of the undocumented. Inevitably, non-white people, whether citizens or not, are profiled by law enforcement. American citizens of all races, who are not required to prove their status, will be intimidated and harassed as well.

America is now marching headlong into fascism, and under a Democratic president, not a Republican. When George W. Bush was in office, talk of the fascist threat first began to be openly discussed. The Patriot Act, the “enemy combatant” designation, and the Iraq occupation were all warning signs that a fascist America was not a science fiction fantasy, but a possible reality.

The Bush era assault on civil liberties has been strengthened by the Obama administration in every way possible, and deportation of immigrants is no exception. It is little wonder that Americans traveling within the United States and nowhere near an actual border crossing with another country are now subjected to increasing surveillance from an agency that should have no jurisdiction over them.

It is no exaggeration to call this practice fascism. The state intrudes unnecessarily into the lives of citizens and non-citizens alike and without probable cause, a clear constitutional violation.

At this juncture in history, should there really be great shock and surprise that this practice exists? Should it be a surprise that it has gone on for so long with so little attention or protest? Thousands of people exercising their right to travel freely have been subjected to inherently abusive and unconstitutional treatment and most have said or done nothing about it.

That lack of action is the biggest reason our rights and liberties are at such great risk. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have eviscerated the ideal of America as a free democracy. One president was castigated but largely obeyed and the other is obeyed with hardly any complaint.

Only the most committed and self-deluding Obamaites can say that our political system has manifested the great changes their idol claimed would be in store for us. In fact, our liberties are at even greater risk with a Democratic president whose popularity is based on the false belief that Democrats are keepers of the flames of peace and justice when they are in fact the other side of the same corrupt coin.

The Border Patrol has chosen to carry out these practices in very few places, but in reality they would be able to use the 100 mile rule in New York City or Detroit or Miami or San Diego or Seattle. If they so chose, they could ask transit passengers on a New York bus or subway to produce identification.

It is said that a frog will jump if thrown into an already boiling pot but will be cooked alive if the heat is turned up slowly. If that is true, Americans have turned into frogs and we are all cooking.

MARGARET KIMBERLEY is a columnist for the Black Agenda Report. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.Com.

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Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared. 

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