As the bumper sticker says: If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention. Domenico Salerno, a 35-year-old Italian lawyer, apparently of upstanding character, was led away in shackles from Dulles International and jailed for 10 days. His crime? He wanted to visit America to see his girlfriend.
According to a New York Times report, immigration agents told his girlfriend, Caitlin Cooper, who had come to the airport to pick him up, that he was being detained because he had requested asylum from Italy. Administratively, such a request would result in the detention of the asylum seeker and trigger an investigation, which could take more than a year to resolve.
Salerno's English is not good, but the simple oddball nature of someone requesting asylum from Italy should have suggested that someone summon an interpreter.
According to the Times, the line of interrogation to which he was subjected was one used when agents suspect a traveler intends to work while in the U.S. As Cooper waited for him, she got a call from an agent asking about Salerno's income and why he visited so often. After pleading to know what was going on, she was told, "You know, he should try spending a little more time in his own country."
When finally granted a five-minute phone call, the Times reported, her boyfriend denied to Cooper that he had requested asylum and said the asylum story seemed to be retaliation for his insisting that he be allowed to speak to his embassy.
If this sounds like a page out of Kafka's "Amerika," you're right. After ignoring the subsequent entreaties of Cooper's family and friends and even U.S. Sen. John Warner of Virginia to free Salerno, immigration officials apparently agreed that the asylum issue had been a mistake -- but they still would not release Salerno. In all, it was 10 days before he was released and flown back to Italy.
What, exactly, is going on here?
Two years and four months ago, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood together and proposed their joint vision for "secure borders and open doors." Rice said President Bush had affirmed "that it is a vital national interest for America to remain a welcoming nation," and Chertoff echoed, "Even our national security interests require us to continue to promote a welcoming process."
This initiative originated because of complaints that immigration officers were presenting a hostile greeting to foreign visitors. Since then, little if any progress has been made. A year after the announcement, the Discover America Partnership released a poll showing that potential visitors to the U.S. feared immigration officers more than they feared terrorists.
The president and Chertoff are correct, however, in connecting our receptiveness to visitors with national security. Aside from the benefits of public diplomacy -- a Discover America Partnership poll shows that America's image improves in the eyes of foreigners who visit -- we are losing diplomatic opportunities at much higher levels.
Today, there are ministers in government cabinets around the world who studied at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and other prestigious U.S. colleges and universities. They influence opinion about America at the highest levels of their government, based on the firsthand experience of having lived here for multiple years.
But as a result of our Fortress America mentality, tomorrow's generation of world leaders looks elsewhere for higher education. Twenty years from now, we will still be reaping the unfortunate foreign policy consequences of our current immigration practices, to say nothing of the consequences of immigration-related issues on present-day domestic policy.
An argument could be made that in many regards, the terrorists who wish to undermine the American way of life have made significant headway without having to launch another attack on American soil. Our own government, in the name of fighting terror, has undermined long-standing traditions of protecting civil liberties and has chipped away at the fundamental American ideal of welcoming strangers to our shores.
The Rice-Chertoff initiative was intended to establish "one-stop redress for travelers" to resolve errors that had led to travelers being incorrectly selected for additional screening. This aspect of the initiative was an explicit acknowledgement that "sometimes mistakes are made. Travelers need simpler ways to fix them."
Immigration officers are in a very difficult position. Each hopes not to be the one who inadvertently admits a terrorist onto U.S. soil. They have wide discretionary power for denying entry; according to the Times, they can simply go with their hunches. But it's not evident that, more than six years after 9/11, they've received the proper training, nor are they yet willing to admit that "sometimes mistakes are made."
It is no exaggeration to say that Chertoff has been unable or unwilling to balance various national security needs with our cherished values. He should step aside and let someone else try.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].