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Land of the Less-Free

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What kind of America-hating ghoul would be against Strengthening Our Borders or going after Deadbeat Dads? After all, the terrorists are busy plotting another 9/11, and the children continue to suffer.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said that "By Jan. 31, 2008, the [passport] requirement will be expanded to include crossings by land or sea." In fact, the requirement is currently scheduled to only begin phasing in on that date, and can be met using birth certificates as well as passports for the first few months.


But when Democrats and Republicans agree on bumper-sticker policy, it's the rest of us law-abiding citizens who are at risk, whether we know it or not. And right now the federal government is determined to use such once-sacrosanct documents as passports, Social Security numbers and drivers licenses to try to restrict all manner of bad or unpopular behavior — behavior that in most cases is completely unrelated to the limited areas of work and travel these documents are supposed to regulate.

Beginning this New Year's Day, all Americans — including the significant non-terrorist population — are required by U.S. law to show a valid U.S. passport when reentering the country by air from anywhere within the Western Hemisphere. Starting from Jan. 31, 2008, the requirement for showing proof of citizenship will be expanded to include crossings by land or sea, with full passport compliance scheduled for next summer. No more cruising down to Baja for the weekend without a water-stamped, biometrically sound international travel document!

Until the new restriction kicked in, about one in five Americans bothered to get a passport, according to the Associated Press. That number is near one in four now, and will swell to one in two by 2010, the State Department has estimated. The results have been utterly predictable by everyone except the government agencies tasked with processing the paperwork —terrible backlogs and delays. "A passport rule leads to thousands of ruined travel plans," read the International Herald Tribune headline:

By summer, more than 2 million people were waiting for passports; half a million had waited more than three months since applying for a document that in the past was typically ready in six weeks.The backlog destroyed summer vacations, ruined wedding and honeymoon plans and disrupted business meetings and education plans. People lost work days waiting in lines or thousands of dollars in nonrefundable travel deposits.
But what's a little travel inconvenience and expenditure for the jet-set, right? Wrong. The drivers license-standardizing Real ID Act of 2005, inspired (as such bills usually are) by a mix of hysteria and concern about both immigration and national security, is being used by a newly (and bitterly) emboldened Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff to threaten foot-dragging states with the prospect of forcing all citizens to show a passport before boarding an airplane or evenentering a federal building.

"This is not a mandate. A state doesn't have to do this," Chertoff told the AP this month, disingenuously. "But we've been very clear and the law is very clear, if the state doesn't have at the end of the day, the end of the deadline, Real ID-compliant licenses, then that state cannot expect that those licenses will be accepted for federal purposes."

That won't be the only new form of identification required for all of us, if legislators have their way. Chances are strong that all employees in the United States will soon have to show evidence of tamper-proof work-eligibility status — something greater than a Social Security card. "Anybody who doesn't have that," Arizona Sen. John McCain recently told the Arizona Republic, "then the employer who hired them would be prosecuted."

OK, so everyone — for the first time in U.S. history, mind you — will need a passport and tamper-proof work ID. It's not like the government would use those requirements to squeeze money or obedience out of you, right?

Think again.

The "Welfare Reform Act," which really should be referred to by it's creepy official name (The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act), was another mid-1990s triumph of bipartisan problem-solving, and one of its many state-enhancing stipulations that hasn't gotten much press until recently is that the State Department will deny you a passport — even if you've lost yours overseas — if a database shows that you owe more than $2,500 in child support. The Passport Denial Program recently cut the minimum down from $5,000, and what with that new border-securing boom in U.S. passports, the cash haul from document-starved "deadbeat dads" has doubled already in 2007, helped by such one-off hauls as a Los Angeles County man who coughed up $311,491 when he was marooned without a passport in Hong Kong.

A recent triumphant AP story on the program (Passport Rules Snag Child Support Cash!) reads with all the skepticism of a Granma piece on Dengue Fever-eradication:

In all, states have reported collecting at least $22.5 million through the program thus far in 2007. The money is then forwarded to the parent to whom it is owed.Some people never learn.
Neither do some news organizations. All it takes in Los Angeles County to be declared the father of a child — and therefore on the hook for any and all back child support, with interest — is for a mother to provide your name, the Department of Child Support Services to send you a summons choked in legalese, and for you to fail to return it within 30 days. Such "default judgments"— which amount to 45% of all paternity-establishments in the stateof California in 2005 (down from an appalling 68% five years previous) — are notoriously hard to undo once the wheels of justice are set in motion (greased by states' financial incentives from the federal government to establish as many paternities as possible).

It happened recently to a 19-year-old Palmdale kid (said to be the father of four). It's happened to untold numbers of gay men, and women with manly first names. It happened to a good friend of mine, whose never-used Christian name (Anthony Pierce) was uttered by a woman he'd never met in Northern California, thus putting him on the hook for a 10-year-old. It even happened to a localNavy vet who took a paternity test establishing his innocence. If you still don't believe how ridiculously easy it isfor the state to pin false paternity on you, then garnish your wages (including unemployment checks!) and prevent you from leaving the country, read this, and weep.

No doubt, kids are getting more money for child support. And terrorists, theoretically, might have a more difficult timeentering the country. But at what cost to the rest of us? One American who's long since left the country put it recently like this:

[T]he Magna Carta principle that citizens have the right to travel internationally unless they stand accused or convicted of a crime has been abrogated. What's next? Passport refusals on the grounds that one's student loan payments are delinquent? Denials of passports because of mortgage defaults? It's a bit ironic that a nation which historically has been a refuge for the destitute seeking a new start could become one big debtors' prison with the combination of provisions like the Passport Denial Program, oppressive bankruptcy laws and a failing economy.
Hyperbole? Maybe. But as long as both parties are coming together to Secure Our Borders and punish marginalized citizens, your freedom and mine will continue to erode.

Matt Welch is assistant Editorial Page editor.

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