Why All Americans Should Carry ID Papers

“As an American, I cannot go to Arizona today without a passport,” declared Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes, one of the sponsors of a resolution to boycott Arizona’s businesses because of its new immigration law. “If I come across an officer who’s having a bad day and feels that the picture on my ID is not me, I can be…deported, no questions asked,” the hyperbolic Reyes told the Los Angeles Times this week. “That is not American.’’

As it happens, when I was in Arizona for a conference last month I carried my passport everywhere I went. Not that I really expected to be asked for it: I was born in Tennessee and my Scots-Irish, English, German, and Danish forebears got me an exemption from such tribulations, even in Arizona, simply because they were all white. The fact is, I always carry my passport. After years living and working in Europe, the Middle East, and Central America, I’ve grown used to the idea that cops can ask me for my “papers” any time they choose.

In police states, this is a pretty ugly process—most often an attempt at intimidation, or extortion, or both. In democracies, it can be pretty ugly, too, and sometimes for the same reasons. But you get used to it, and if we’re serious about drawing lines against illegal immigration—which is all about defining who is a card-carrying American and who is not—a national ID is the obvious first step. Without it, we’re left guessing who “looks like” or “sounds like” a bona fide gringo.

So, to be fair, my modest proposal is that all Americans inside America, not just outside, should be required to have passports and to carry them at all times. Whenever any American is asked for an ID, he or she should have to produce one issued by the federal government. Those who fail to comply should be liable to detention until the cops who picked them up figure out if they’re really true red, white, and blue Americans, no matter whether they are black, brown, white or shades in between.

Of course, passports like the one I carry—the ones that are required if you want to fly into the United States—are expensive. Mine tend to wear out fast in my back pocket, and the last one I got cost a hundred bucks. So let’s be reasonable. At a minimum all Americans should be required to have one of the wallet-sized passport cards issued by the feds.  They cost $20 if you’ve had a regular passport before, $45 if you haven’t. Foreign citizens with United States Permanent Resident Cards, which have recently been redesigned and made more secure would only need to show those.

Anything less—the “biometric Social Security card” advocated by some Democrats on Capitol Hill, say, or the Real ID program to modify state drivers’ licenses as national IDs or the E-Verify program for businesses to check employees’ true nationalities—is really just a workaround that doesn’t work. These schemes also create whole new layers of bureaucracy and vast new burdens for law enforcement.

The Arizona legislation is a case in point. It fails to define “reasonable suspicion” for demanding proof of citizenship, then leaves the proof itself a little vague. In one recent case near Phoenix, a Hispanic truck driver whose license and registration were in order was taken to the offices of the immigration service in handcuffs while authorities called his wife at work and made her go home to find the birth certificate showing he was born in the U.S.A. And the new law won’t even take effect, officially, until July.

Do you carry your original birth certificate with you? Do you even know where it is? Do I really want to live in a United States where I have to carry my papers with me everywhere and all the time? No. But I don’t want any Americans of any race or with any accent to have to do so either. So if we’re going to do this at all—and maybe that is the price of rationalizing immigration policy—then let’s do it to all of us.

As things stand, if ever there were a license for corrupt local government officials and crazed citizens to intimidate a community, Arizona’s new laws fit the bill, as it were. Anyone discussing this much-discussed immigration law should take the time to read the text. It is xenophobic populism gone plum loco, as folks used to say in bad Westerns. And if there were any doubt about the parochial, churlish qualities of the Arizona state government, Gov. Jan Brewer has just signed a new law clearly intended to stifle expressions of Hispanic pride in the schools but ostensibly aimed at banning “courses or classes that either promote the overthrow of the United States government or promote resentment toward a race or class of people.”

In fact, it’s these Arizona lawmakers who are subversive.

Article 8, Section G of the immigration law opens the way for local anti-immigration—and anti-Latino—zealots to sue the cops if they aren’t zealous enough pursuing supposedly suspicious people. This comes on top of existing Arizona legislation that encourages one of the most infamous police-state tactics of all: denunciation by anonymous letter, or, in modern practice, an anonymous phone call or e-mail. Do you have some Latinos in your neighborhood you don’t like? Call the cops and, without giving your name or real motives, whisper that there seem be a lot of people going in and out of a house or a shop at odd hours and you think most of them are speaking Spanish. If the police don’t follow up on that tip and, at a minimum, knock on your neighbors’ door, you can start building your case to sue the cops.

You see what’s going on here. This isn’t really about trying to protect national borders or help national authorities do that job, it’s about building a hodgepodge system of local vigilantism based on fear and prejudice, then trying to force the federal government to be complicit. We’ve seen this kind of thing again and again in U.S. history. Back in the 1850s the Know-Nothings organized around their hatred of Irish and other Catholic immigrants and briefly became a force in national politics. As Frank Rich pointed out in a recent New York Times column,  of the 35 members of the Arizona House who voted for the immigration bill, 31 voted for another law that would have barred any presidential candidate from appearing on the Arizona ballot in the next elections if he couldn’t provide a birth certificate that satisfied the Arizonans’ standards. So, ban Obama. But register guns with the federal government? Forget it. Too much paperwork. Too much invasion of privacy.

It’s this kind of self-contradicting conservatism, bordering on lunatic libertarianism, that leads to the crazy situation where people suspected of terrorist connections can be put on a no-fly list but not on a no-buy list for guns, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly noted in recent testimony on the Hill.

Well, enough of that. If we want to protect the nation from illegal immigration, and for that matter from terrorists, then it is the nation, precisely, that should be in charge, and part of the job should be issuing a uniform document to all citizens. Right now about 23 percent of Americans have some form of passport. Let’s make that 100 percent. And if you want to buy a gun, your passport number should be recorded in the purchase agreement and your record of travels and associations checked before you carry it out of the shop, whether your name is Faisal, Fernando, or Fred.

Are these revolutionary ideas? No. But raising these issues creates such political firestorms, such wildly distorted rhetoric and abuse in the United States these days that, well, I’m glad I’ve got my passport.

Christopher Dickey is also the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force - The NYPD, chosen by the New York Times as a notable book of 2009.

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