Quite a few people sent me the story of Seth Harp in the Intercept.
I SHOULD HAVE kept my mouth shut about the guacamole; that made things worse for me. Otherwise, what I’m about to describe could happen to any American who travels internationally. It happened 33,295 times last year.
My work as a journalist has taken me to many foreign countries, including frequent trips to Mexico. On May 13, I was returning to the U.S. from Mexico City when, passing through immigration at the Austin airport, I was pulled out of line for “secondary screening,” a quasi-custodial law enforcement process that takes place in the Homeland Security zone of the airport.
What happened to Harp was, his misguided snarky responses aside, quite outrageous, with a Customs and Border Patrol agent named Moncivias pulling him aside for “secondary screening.” It went downhill from there.
In retrospect, I was naive about the kind of agency CBP has become in the Trump era. Though I’ve reported several magazine stories in Mexico, none have been about immigration. Of course, I knew these were the guys putting kids in cages, separating refugee children from their parents, and that Trump’s whole shtick is vilifying immigrants, leading to many sad and ugly scenes at the border, including the farcical deployment of U.S. troops. But I complacently assumed that wouldn’t affect me directly, least of all in Austin. Later, I did remember reading a report in February about CBP targeting journalists, activists, and lawyers for scrutiny at ports of entry south of California, but I had never had a problem before, not in a lifetime of crossing the Texas-Mexico border scores of times on foot, by car, by plane, in a canoe, even swimming. This was the first time CBP had ever pulled me aside.
People who brought this to my attention did so as another example of CBP out of control, abusing the Fourth Amendment by rifling through Harp’s laptop and cellphone, pictures and files, everything, for hours, for no discernible reason. As a writer, Harp told his story well, replete with details, emotionally evocative, colorful and awful. His retelling of his story evokes anger. If you’re looking for something else to hate CBP about, it’s there for the reading.
But the paragraph above is what caught my eye. The problem with border searches is nothing new. It’s not a Trump thing, even though everything is now a Trump thing, even if it happened for years, administrations, before. Would he have felt better about it had there been a picture of Obama on the wall rather than Trump?
This is where woke people will argue about how it’s different now, worse, for trivial, false or irrelevant reasons. There are always minor details upon which those desperate to distinguish the same essential conduct perpetrated by a good guy from a bad guy. So you were only shot with five bullets instead of ten?
So why doesn’t Harp’s tale of personal woe give rise to the outrage it deserves? Isn’t this another clear demonstration of the wrongfulness of border searches, the outrageousness of seizing an American’s most intimate and personal information without any legitimate justification, violating his privacy and running roughshod over his rights as an American? Of course it is. It’s another terrible story. And Harp writes about its horrors because it happened to him. Not to you. Not to me. To him. Now it matters.
For more than a decade, the problems with border searches have appeared here. I’ve written about the law, applications to new and different people and objects as technology changed the landscape and court decisions dealing with this perverse rubric divorced from its pre-tech rationale. Given the state of the law on border searches of electronic devices, Judge Edward Korman issued a practical, if unsatisfactory, warning in Abidor v. Napolitano*:
This is enough to suggest that it would be foolish, if not irresponsible, for plaintiffs to store truly private or confidential information on electronic devices that are carried and used overseas.
We’ve been warned. Harp’s been warned too. Judge Korman didn’t intend to be mean to us by issuing this admonition, though he surely wasn’t being particularly kind either. Rather, he told lawyers that if they want to keep their privileged communications and information from the prying eyes of CBP, leave it home. If you carry it across a border, then you’re asking for trouble.
There hasn’t been any change in the law of border searches since then. There may well be more random secondary screenings of American citizens,** and there may well be greater arrogance by CBP agents who enjoy the support of an administration to bash a few heads for kicks.
But these are, at worst, petty distinctions. If you’re the person subject to secondary search, what real difference does it make to you whether they did the same to ten others that day or twenty. They did it to you, and that’s what matters to you. Misery doesn’t love company as much as it loves itself.
And that’s what’s wrong with Harp’s self-indulgent regurgitation of an old, well-worn problem that has been dissected and explained over and over to address each nuanced issue and wrong. Harp doesn’t write about a problem. He writes about his problem. Harp should have known. He’s a journalist. It was all there to be read, to be seen, to be known about and addressed. But he never bothered to know, or give a damn, until it happened to him.
Was he naive? That relieves him of responsibility, since naivete isn’t a shameful status. But for a reporter who crossed borders regularly, was it naive to be ignorant of the law, or what happened to tens of thousands of people annually, and has for as long as people crossed borders, and even more focused, crossed with computers and cellphones in hand? Is it naive that he missed all of this, was blissfully unaware that this was happening, until it happened to him?
Does it warrant a post here, regurgitating his story of self-indulgent misery at the hands of the now-even-more-despised-than-before CBP? He brings no new facts, no new issues, no new technology, no new legal issue to the table. The only thing new is that this time it was him. And now it’s a story worth telling.
Let’s all cry sad tears for the horrors Seth Harp endured, and it was horrible, but it was also the same as what Americans have endured for years. That this was Harp’s day to suffer doesn’t make it newsworthy, interesting or novel, but more of the same at a time when crying sad tears over each victim’s story has become an end in itself.
*Note that the defendant in the case was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She was not in the Trump cabinet, for those keeping score.
**While it’s now politically incorrect to distinguish between American citizens and undocumented immigrants, because aren’t we all just human beings?. that’s pretty much a core responsibility at the border, where citizens and non-citizens are vetted. Unless and until we become one world, there will remain separate lines.