Travel Restrictions Under Obama: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

By Michelle Chen Jan 05, 2010

America’s borders tightened and loosened this week as the Obama administration revamped its travel restriction policies. The formal end to a longstanding travel ban on people with HIV/AIDS has enabled travelers to enter the country without being subjected to discrimination based on their HIV/AIDS status. Steve Ralls of Immigration Equality hailed "the end of a shameful and discriminatory policy that has exacted a heavy price on our country’s reputation in the scientific community and kept countless individuals–both straight and gay–separated from their loved ones." The lifting of the ban (the result of a repeal process initiated under the Bush administration’s PEPFAR legislation) also sends a powerful signal of openness to the communities most impacted by AIDS around the world, which are concentrated in the Global South. The new policy sets the stage for the United States to host the World AIDS Conference for the first time since 1989. But just as the gates opened for people with HIV/AIDS, the Christmas Day underpants bomb panic triggered a throwback to post-9/11 paranoia: travelers now face enhanced screening procedures for 14 countries, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and of course, the perennial warmed-over Cold War boogeyman, Cuba. The administration doesn’t even seem interested in pretending the new restrictions are implemented equitably: the public’s willingness to tolerate profiling in the name of security is a hallmark of the Bush era that carried over smoothly into the new administration. One student who was stopped at Los Angeles International couldn’t make sense of it: "They took my bag and took everything out, just right there in front of everyone. It feels bad. It’s supposed to be everybody or nobody. It’s not right." The public debate has been reduced to the "controversy" surrounding the most basic tenets of civil liberties. At a New York Times online forum, ACLU legislative counsel Michael German challenged the self-defeating tactic of counterterrorism via profiling:

Some people want to target Muslims, figuring some are bound to be “radicalized.” But what do we go by? Name? Appearance? The vast majority of Arab Americans, for instance, are not only innocent of sympathy for terrorism, they’re actually Christian. To profile Muslims you’d have to target blacks, Asians, whites and Hispanics (remember Jose Padilla?). How could that work, and would it really help identify those who are intending harm or would it simply divert resources that could be better used on investigations? Finally, and not inconsequentially, racial profiling is wrong, un-American and unconstitutional. It is institutionalized racism. And when we abandon our principles, we not only betray our values, we also run the risk of undermining international and community support for counterterrorism efforts by providing an injustice for terrorists to exploit as a way of justifying further acts of terrorism.

Eight years after 9/11 ushered in a new regime of surveillance, intimidation and secrecy, the new administration has rebranded the absurd game of whack-a-mole in its homeland security strategies. Crossing the border isn’t just logistically chaotic these days; it’s a test of how much we’re willing to let fear push the boundaries of our constitutional rights. Image: