I don’t like international borders. I have been through many of them, and at each one there is the potential that you will be detained, and disappear into a system which is not accountable to anyone, much less you. Agents make decisions to arrest and detain you based on information they can see on their computer, but you cannot. And based on laws that they claim to know better than you, even if you do not. It doesn’t matter if you follow the rules, or not—they win, you lose no matter what. When you cross borders, you do not have rights—you can be detained at the whim of the officer for reasons only the officer and their superiors know. You do not have a right to a lawyer, (see below) or even know why you are detained or deported. The immigration officer is always right—they can see their computer screen, and you cannot.
I have been detained at borders in the United States and elsewhere, and sometimes threatened with arrest. Fortunately I have never been detained for more than a couple of hours. But every time it happens, even for a short time, it is disconcerting. Your freedom is in the hand of a faceless stranger in a uniform who is unaccountable to you or the law. It terrifies children, like the five year old Iranian boy old recently arrested in Houston. Or for that matter, the time an immigration officer in Oakland, California, threatened my wife Dagmar with deportation in front of our two small children.
The funny thing is that, despite the presumed rigor at international borders, the United States has some of the freest and safest travel. Without any immigration controls. Millions travel by road and train between Washington DC to New York crossing four state borders, and are never asked for their papers at a border check point. In the European Union, millions routinely cross national borders without being hassled by the faceless bureaucrats, either. This is because both the US and EU have figured out that security comes from things besides submission to a faceless uniformed bureaucrat. The borderless US and EU are two of the greatest achievements for freedom of human movement. For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people seem to want to surrender freedoms to the faceless bureaucrats behind the computer screens who are unaccountable to the rule of law.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.