Airport Hell

Revolutionary Worker #1236, April 11, 2004, posted at

Rosi Hygate wanted to see her brother John. It had been ten years, and their mother had recently died, so John and Rosi were especially looking forward to spending time together. But when John flew in from England back in January, rather than a reunion, he was caught in the lengthening coil of repression implemented at U.S. airports.

When John deplaned in Los Angeles, his name sent up red flags because of an arrest 26 years earlier in England. John, a 58-year-old diabetic who has worked for 20 years for the British government as a prison liaison, was not going to see his sister.

Instead, he was taken into custody, searched, fingerprinted, and photographed over and over again. It was three hours before he was allowed to call his sister--and that was only to tell her he was being sent back to England. He was then taken to a jail in L.A.

The next day he was brought to the airport in handcuffs. His sister later wrote to the L.A. Times, "[He was] paraded through the airport on legs now swollen from his diabetes and held back until all the other passengers had boarded. He was then walked down the aisle of the plane, still in handcuffs, and placed next to a terrified woman who had to be reassured that he was not dangerous. His passport was confiscated and given to a flight attendant, who kept it until the plane landed in London."

This incident at the L.A. airport coincides with the deployment of the United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) by the Border and Transportation Security Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. Planned before 9/11/01, it is presented by officials as a mechanism to make sure "foreigners" entering the U.S. don't overstay their visa--but it is much more than that.

US VISIT is currently operating at 115 airports and 14 seaports within the U.S. As of January 5 a whole set of foreign travelers who pass through such entry points now find themselves putting their two index fingers on a glass plate to be scanned into a computer, while a camera snaps their photograph. The Department of Homeland Security's webpage--with fascistic doublespeak--says the US VISIT program will "safeguard the personal privacy of our visitors."

When US VISIT was first implemented, the authorities "limited" the program to mainly air travelers from countries in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and most countries in Europe were supposed to be exempt (though the example from L.A. suggests, no one was really immune).

On April 2, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the program is to be expanded to include virtually all countries starting September 30--affecting about 19 million people. The only exceptions will be diplomats and people entering from Mexico and Canada carrying "border cards," which are essentially 72-hour passes.

There is an ominous logic at work here. First, people from a number of countries are targeted for police-state measures. Then the targeted countries are expanded to include airline travelers from almost all countries. And next in step are the borders with Mexico and Canada. Clearly, the direction this is heading toward is that all travelers--including even those traveling within the U.S.--would be required to undergo fingerprinting, photographing, and other measures.

The authorities haven't said much about how the technology used in US VISIT works, except to emphasize that no one's fingers are dirtied from ink in the fingerprinting--as if smudges on fingertips were the biggest thing people should be worried about. But what is known indicates that a startling amount of information is bouncing back and forth within government channels.

The trade magazine eWeek explained that the fingerprints and photos taken at airports are "stored in a database, along with the person's visa number, and compared against so-called watch lists of known terrorists and criminals. Each time the person enters the country, another database search is done to see if any new information about the visitor has accumulated since his or her last visit."

An article in InformationWeek pointed out that "databases used to track criminals by local law-enforcement agencies could tap into US-VISIT." The example from L.A. suggests this is already happening. In fact, in the first three weeks of the program DHS proudly noted that 30 people were arrested on outstanding warrants.

There have been outraged reactions internationally to the US VISIT program. The Times of London (1/29/2004) remarked, "[T]hey are making the United States one of the most intimidating countries to enter since the demise of the Soviet Union." A judge in Brazil ordered that U.S citizens entering that country be fingerprinted.

US VISIT is the latest in a mind-boggling array of Big Brother measures put in place at the airports (see box). All this is promoted as steps by the government to "increase the security of air travel." But US VISIT and other measures are part of an emerging police state that the rulers are moving toward. This is a future that must be resisted.

Big Brother at the Airports

The following is a brief summary of other aspects of "air security" that the U.S. government is carrying out: