Tuesday, April 26, 2011

passports, the right of emigration, and the rule of law

As someone who likes to gallivant around the world to see new places, I take a bit of pride in my passport, or at least regard it with some kind of affection. But it's worth remembering that a passport is actually owned by the issuing government, and that we are not actually free to leave a sovereign territory without the blessing of the government. For most of Americans, this is an academic point. If you want a passport, all you have to do is provide some minimal documentation and a nominal processing fee and voila. But times, they may be a-changin':
What if I told you that a cadre of "birther" Republicans want to prevent President Obama from appearing on Election 2012 ballots unless he fills out a form listing every address he's lived at since birth; every job he has ever held; the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of his supervisors; a list of his siblings and personal details about them; the address of his mother one year prior to his birth, on the day of his birth, and one year after his birth; the name of his mother's obstetrician and the dates when she received prenatal care; the names and addresses of people present at his birth; and details about any religious ceremony held to mark his birth.

You'd scoff at those requirements, and rightly so! They'd be unnecessary, laughable, outrageous.

Ironically, the form I described is not one dreamt up by birthers, or meant to parody their obsession. It is, in fact, the actual information the Obama administration wants to require of some US citizens when they apply for a passport. I kid you not. The form, proposed by the U.S. State Department, can be viewed here. Above I've laid out the actual information it requests of any U.S. citizen who 1) wants a passport and 2) "wasn't born in a medical facility" (or didn't have their birth recorded within a year of it happening). Incredibly, Foggy Bottom staff estimates that providing the answers to all those questions will take the average applicant just 45 minutes.
That is from Conor Friedersdorf. A couple points:

This is an affront to the rule of law. By making the form impossible to complete in the requested level of detail, what constitutes satisfactory completion will be left to the whims of the bureaucrats in charge. This provides an opportunity for the passport office to grant or deny the passport privilege for hidden, possibly political, reasons. A disappointed petitioner will just be told that any one of a dozen pieces of crucial information was lacking. And then there is the possibility of being charged with perjury for failing to fill out the impossible form.

All the things I might say about the right to immigrate apply to the right to emigrate as well. Fortunately, for once I think most "common sense" views from salt-of-the-earth types probably coincide nicely with my cosmotarian take on the right to leave a country. For most Americans or other Global Northerners, it may not seem like a big deal that a government assert authority over when, where, and how a citizen can leave the nation's territory. But this is exactly the power that makes North Korea and the former East Germany prison states. Less dramatically but closer to home, recall that it is illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. This smacks of the idea that the State owns the individual.


  1. This form would be particularly burdensome for me and other people who grew up as dependents of military or foreign service parents, who typically move every 1-3 years. Odd, no?

  2. Yeah, I don't know the details of your birth. Apparently this form is only for people not born in a medical institution, or didn't have their birth recorded within a year. And it explicitly doesn't apply to people born outside the US, so it's not like they're after terrorists or anything ... The intention of the proposal probably isn't dark or nefarious. It's just dumb.