Passports and Visas: the Entire Rotten Show

Photo by Laurie Avocado | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Laurie Avocado | CC BY 2.0

Last August, returning to the US from Australia, I had an intriguing experience with an immigration officer at Los Angeles airport.

Looking at my details on his computer, he said: “You’ve lived here a long time, why haven’t you become a US citizen?”.

He was right of course about my having been in the US for a long time—August 2017 will my 30th year in the US.

Realizing I was somewhat at his mercy despite showing him my permanent-resident Green Card, and knowing full well that a wisecrack or smart-arsed remark on my part would probably send his blood pressure soaring, I mumbled something along the lines of “I’m thinking about it”. He then bid me good day, and so I was readmitted to the US.

I’m about to leave for India from Newark airport, and given the Orange Swindler’s predilection for issuing executive orders on a caprice, I wonder what a Green Card will “permit” when I return to the US after a couple of weeks in Mumbai.

In truth, though, I’m not really apprehensive.  As the holder of a UK passport, and thanks in large part to the grovelling and bootlicking that generations of UK leaders have done in the name of the fantasized “special relationship”, I’m simply not in the dreadful position of someone from one of the seven Muslim-majority countries targetted by the Orange Swindler and his cabal in his recent executive order.

But the diktats emerging from the White House prompt some thoughts about the function of passports and visas.

As is well-publicized, Trump gave several Muslim-majority countries in which he has business interests the equivalent of a “get out of jail” card– citizens from these exempted countries have attacked the US and its citizens in the past, but were somehow excluded from his immigration ban.

Clearly, the Orange Swindler’s businesses, and those of his family, are his absolute priority.   He seems more concerned about Nordstrom’s ditching of his daughter’s fashion line than he is about doing his job properly.

Back to my encounter with the immigration officer at Los Angeles airport who dearly wanted me to become a US citizen.

A truthful answer to his question about my reluctance over becoming an American citizen would have involved something like the following: “Sir, you have my UK passport in front of you. It is bad enough for me to be the citizen of a country with a cruel and bloodthirsty imperial past, and here you are wanting me to acquire a second passport– that of another empire, the US— whose historical record as an imperial power is just as dishonourable as that of its imperial predecessor.  You need to give me a break!”.

A corollary to my truthful but of course unspoken reply would be even briefer: I’m a mercenary.

Not a mercenary in the typical sense, that is, someone who will bear arms for another country for money. Rather, I’m someone who contributes (hopefully!) to the knowledge-economy of another country purely and simply in return for payment and nothing more.

There is a precedent for a mercenary of my kind when it comes to being a non-citizen of the country which employs you.

According to Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars and the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus, mercenaries in the imperial army, nearly all hailing from barbarian lands subdued by the Romans, served without the requirement or expectation of becoming Roman citizens.

Like me, they signed-up for cash, and presumably a measure of job satisfaction. I have a well-paid job which is largely satisfactory. And like these mercenaries of old, I’ve not become a citizen of the country which pays me.

Why is this state of affairs so seemingly unpalatable to someone like my Los Angeles immigration officer? Can’t I just earn a salary in the US without becoming an American citizen?

My decision not to become a US citizen while working here is certainly anomalous. Given its vast economic resources, the US is a magnet for the malheureux of the world, who risk their lives crossing borders in order to enter the belly of the beast.

If I had my way, I would opt for a system which allowed me to retain my right to be an academic mercenary, but gift my qualification for US citizenship to someone much less fortunate.

People can become organ donors, so why not citizenship donors?

For the wealthy it is of course possible to buy US citizenship by acquiring an EB-5 visa. To obtain this visa, which is effectively a Green Card, the applicant must invest $500,000 into a project or business that will create 10 new jobs in a rural or high unemployment area. This visa is reported to be very popular among Chinese millionaires. Once acquired, the Green Card qualifies the holder for US citizenship after 5 years.

The US is not alone in putting citizenship up for sale. According to a BBC report, in 2014 several thousand people were estimated to have spent a collective $2bn on the acquisition of second and even third passports or citizenships.

The same report indicated that in 2013-2014 alone Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain introduced citizenship-purchase programmes.  Other countries with similar schemes include Australia, Belgium, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Singapore.

The following countries will even sell citizenship without the need to become a resident:  Antigua, Dominica, St Kitts and Nevis, Malta, and Cyprus.

Some “golden visa” programmes of this kind have failed, largely because they are a magnet for criminals.  Belize suspended its programme in 2002, Ireland in 2001, Grenada in 2001 (but reopened it in 2014), and Montenegro in 2010.

Citizenship today is a commodity.

But then so are cabinet offices in Trump’s administration.  His newly confirmed secretary of education Betsy DeVos, as unqualified for that office as I am to be the US Surgeon-General or the head of NASA’s training school for astronauts, effectively bribed every senator who ended up voting for her confirmation.

But using wealth to acquire citizenship is not new.

At my international boarding school in the 1960s, the wealthy heir to a major German car-making enterprise, very ostentatiously and with much tut-tutting to himself (but loud enough for us to hear), would lay out 3 passports on his bed when packing for the Christmas break.  A German passport, but also one from Luxembourg, and a third from some Caribbean nation.

His entirely confected “predicament” — today he would be called a drama queen– was deciding which passport would be provide the easiest access to the sun-soaked Polynesian island he was going to visit during our winter break.

(Though to be fair to him, in those days there was no internet to give someone like him such information with a few taps on a keyboard).

Today I can only contemplate a scenario in which my then fellow student is at the Los Angeles airport’s immigration counter while I was there, holding out his 3 passports to my immigration officer, and saying “take your pick, officer– all of these should get me into your country”.

For me this, and the immigration officer’s reaction of course, would be a sight to behold.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.