The Declining Power of the American Passport
In late 2012, after a brief trip into Aleppo to cover the Syrian civil war, I walked up to a Turkish border checkpoint. I expected to be waved through to Kilis, a town a short distance away, where I had been staying. Colleagues of mine who had covered the rebels for longer had told me the crossing was a quiet one, and I shouldn’t expect any trouble.
Before volunteering for the assignment, I had looked up Turkish visa policies. I am an Indian citizen, so I had checked—and double-checked—with various Turkish diplomatic missions that I was allowed into the country without a prior visa. Because of my particular circumstances (I held a tourist visa to the European Union), I met a threshold that meant I could enter Turkey at any border point.
The border guards at this particular crossing did not agree. They refused to let me enter, telling me in limited English that I should head back to Aleppo. My mind began racing—Syria’s other nearest border was with Lebanon, for which I did not have a visa. I could enter Iraq and Jordan, but they lay on the other side of the country. How would I make it across Syria to get there?
Faced with limited options, I persisted, asking to be taken to a computer. The guards agreed, and an absurd scene ensued in which I typed out my understanding of Turkish visa rules in English and used Google Translate to convert it into Turkish. The border officer who accompanied me to the computer then reversed the translator and responded. We proceeded this way for about 10 minutes, before he agreed to speak with my news organization’s bureau in Ankara. They called the Turkish foreign ministry, who then called the border post. The guard finally let me through, but told me that I should not try to cross again, whatever the rules may say.
There is an inherent randomness—some would reasonably call it unfairness—in how the world enforces the idiosyncrasies of travel and immigration. Through circumstance, you are born in a place, and the history and the policies of that place will, for the majority of humanity, forever determine whether, to where, and for how long you can leave.
American citizens have mostly been spared the stress and humiliation of this universe: An American passport, until recently, could bring you anywhere with minimal need to worry about visas and border checks. But this is the world of immigration that Americans must now familiarize themselves with. Before the pandemic, more than 100 countries were willing to admit Americans; now, by one count, fewer than three dozen countries want you. What you have done matters little; instead, your movements are limited by factors outside of your control, and your passport locks doors rather than opening them.
I spent my university days in London envious of friends with “good passports” who could hop on a train to France or cross the Irish Sea to Dublin without any notice. My vacations, by contrast, had to be meticulously laid out. I visited consulates with flights booked, hotels reserved, itineraries planned, and travel insurance paid for, worried that I would nevertheless be rejected. On one occasion, my girlfriend and I flew from Jordan to Beirut, where colleagues had airily assured me I could get a visa on arrival. When we landed, however, immigration officials told me my colleagues were mistaken, and those rules did not apply to Indians. I was put on a flight back to Amman while my girlfriend, with her British passport, collected our bags.
Even these stories are ones of privilege: holidays undone by byzantine, hazily interpreted visa rules; reporting assignments turned down because travel could not be arranged as quickly as it could be for colleagues with British or American passports. Others have, of course, suffered far more difficult and painful experiences—an array of migrants must endure complicated refugee and asylum processes, and even those who travel for tourism or study must dig deeper into their savings than I must to pay steep application fees.
No set of rules, point-based systems, guidelines, or memoranda of understanding will paper over the fact that travel (and immigration more generally) is not a well-defined, predictable, or fair process, one over which you have any real control. While based in Baghdad, an Iraqi friend of mine had his application for a Special Immigrant Visa—the system through which Iraqis who worked with American soldiers or businesses could move to the United States—rejected; his brother, who had a similar background and career path, was approved. An Indian friend had multiple tourist-visa applications to Britain rejected without explanation after spending hundreds of pounds, sometimes more, in fees and lawyers’ costs.
When I tell American friends about these experiences, many are surprised, unaware that someone with all of my apparent advantages—I speak American-accented English; I work for a major news organization; I am not, by any reasonable measure, poor—still goes through such discouraging moments. All of my privileges are real, but in an immigration queue, all that really matters is what is emblazoned on the front of my passport.
After the pandemic, travel may well return to some measure of normal. Perhaps Americans will be welcomed back to countries all over the world that are keen to court tourists who will help rebuild their struggling economies. Despite the slight schadenfreude I feel watching Americans contend with the new world-traveling order, I hope that you can one day travel with ease, because the status quo is painful.
But maybe some of these changes will be more permanent. Perhaps you, too, will fervently follow news of progress on visa liberalization, which your country has made a priority in trade negotiations. Perhaps you, too, will make sure to shave the morning of a flight, worried that the combination of facial hair, brown skin, and a foreign passport will inspire some immigration officer to “randomly” select you for additional questioning. Perhaps you, too, will bookmark a Wikipedia page for your country that denotes where you can more easily travel, as I have for the past decade.
Welcome to my world.