Sunday, July 11, 2004

The Ongoing War on JournoTerror 

A couple of months ago we ran the story of British journalist Elena Lappin, who was detained and interrogated at LAX because she had failed to apply for the special "I visa" ("I" for "information") that foreign writers are now required to carry. Now Zemblan patriot M.U. forwards an article from last week's New York Times in which Lappin recounts some of the difficulties that have beset other writers, and traces the I visa back to its origins in the McCarthy era:
Take the case of the British novelist Ian McEwan. Laura Bush admires his books so much that he was invited to a lunch she had with Prime Minister Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing Street in the fall of last year. [We'll add that McEwen's letters from NYC in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which were widely distributed by e-mail, are still the best writing we've seen on the subject -- S.] Several months later, when McEwan traveled to the United States via Canada to address an audience of 2,500 in Seattle, he was refused entry by American immigration officials at the Vancouver airport. (Their explanation was that his $5,000 honorarium was too high for him to qualify for the visa waiver program.) The 36-hour crisis -- which would have resulted in his detention had it occurred on American instead of Canadian soil -- was finally resolved with the help of British and American diplomats, members of Congress, journalists and immigration lawyers . . . .

The ordeal endured by the Canadian novelist and Booker Prize nominee Rohinton Mistry is more disturbing still, because it raises the question of racial profiling. Mistry abandoned a speaking tour in the United States in 2002 because of the treatment he and his wife received at a number of airports. They were stopped and interrogated ''to the point where the humiliation for him and his wife became unbearable,'' a representative of his American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, told the Globe and Mail of Toronto. Brent Renison, an attorney in Portland, Ore., and an immigration law specialist who worked with McEwan, points to some of the excesses committed by immigration officials. ''Rohinton Mistry was born in India, not a 'special registration' country, and is a Canadian citizen, entitled under the current rules to avoid the program of fingerprinting and photographing upon entry on a visa waiver'' . . . .

The I visa was initially conceived against the background of the highly controversial McCarran-Walter Act, enacted in 1952 at the peak of the McCarthy era. One of the bill's co-authors, Senator Pat McCarran, boasted that the act was an effective screen against subversives. Opposition to the measure was fierce. The National Council of Churches called it ''an affront to the conscience of the American people.'' President Truman, whose veto of the statute was overriden by Congress, said its national-origins quota system smacked of the Nazi master-race philosophy. Brent Renison points out that the bill listed journalists as ''a new class of nonimmigrants'' and removed them from the visitor category. In any event, visas were denied over the years to major intellectual figures like Graham Greene, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. As late as 1991, The New York Times reported that the State Department ''maintains a list of hundreds of thousands of aliens who are considered to have dangerous beliefs or intentions and ought to be kept out of the country.''
Numerous provisions of McCarran-Walter sprang back to life under the Patriot Act. And now (courtesy of Avedon Carol and Elayne Riggs) the Guardian reports that U.S. restrictions on foreign reporters -- already the tightest in the "free" world -- are about to get even tighter:
A crackdown by US authorities on issuing visas to foreign journalists threatens to cause chaos for overseas broadcasters and newspapers just five months before the presidential election.

The new rules, which come into force next week, will ban overseas reporters and news crews stationed in the US from renewing their visas without leaving the country first.

Just five months before American voters decide who will be appointed to the most powerful office in the world, the US state department said it would no longer allow overseas journalists to renew visas from within the country.

From next week the estimated 20,000 foreign journalists stationed in the US, who used to be able to renew their visas with ease in any major city, will be forced to leave the country to do so.

Rather than applying to renew their visas in Washington or New York, they will be forced to leave the country and re-apply at a US embassy or consulate abroad, delaying their application for between four weeks and six months . . . .

The state department said it was taking the action to comply with new homeland security legislation, which requires all visas issued after October 26 to include biometric information, including fingerprints.

It said it would not be "feasible" to collect this information in the US, despite the fact that a separate edict has ruled that all government departments responsible for issuing visas should have the required equipment in time for the change.
As for the implications of this seemingly minor change in policy, we'll note only that the docile American press wouldn't come anywhere near the story of the Florida felon purge in late 2000, when the information might have made a difference. It was Greg Palast, an American expatriate working for the BBC and the Observer, who dug up the goods on Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush, ChoicePoint, and the thousands of (mostly Democratic) voters they "erroneously" scrubbed from the rolls.

SIDEBAR: In her Times piece, Lappin notes that, according to a survey sponsored by eight business organizations, American businesses have lost "$30.7 billion in the last two years because of visa delays and denials for their foreign partners and employees." On Friday, Michael Froomkin posted this:
I read once that if everyone has to go to the airport an hour earlier than they used to, the nation annually loses productivity equal to the amount of destruction that the 9/11 bombing cost. A little googling suggests that the number may be as low as half a World Trade Center bombing per year. [One estimate suggests that the annual value of time lost by business and leisure travelers because of airport delays in 1999 was $11.8 billion, while a different (2001) estimate put the cost of the WTC clearnup and reconstruction at $23 billion.] Even half a WTC per year is handing terrorists a major, continuing victory. Spending the money on useless show is handing terrorists a giant, continuing victory.

I call it the Bush tax.

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