Remember the movie The Hunt for Red October? There’s a scene where Sean Connery’s submarine captain is discussing life in America with his Executive Officer. The man asks Captain Ramius if one can drive state to state. Ramius says he supposes so, and his officer is stunned.
“No papers?” he asks, incredulous. “No papers, state to state,” replies Ramius. Americans watched it and chuckled because of course, we travel without showing our papers to anyone. We are free Americans, right? According to Rolling Stone, however, one flight going state to state found out that free travel is no longer a guarantee – not even within U.S. borders.
On 24 February, Delta flight 1583 left San Francisco for New York City according to airline tracker Flight Aware, and a little over five hours later it landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The passengers were naturally anxious to disembark, but such was not the case. This time, uniformed federal agents stood at the door of the aircraft. In order to leave the plane, passengers had to show their identification. Papers, please.
The scene was highly out of place here in the United States, and indeed a violation of U.S. Constitutional rights. A flight attendant announced to the passengers that “You’ll need to show your papers to agents waiting outside the door.” Matt O’Rourke, a passenger on Flight 1583, noted that the flight attendant was uncomfortable with the edict; as he reached the door, he realized that it was all “a little bit alarming.”
The agents, O’Rourke says, said nothing to him, but took his ID and scrutinized it for nearly 30 seconds before letting him pass…Only later did O’Rourke find himself asking, “Why is a customs agent doing this search? The flight didn’t enter from another country.”
Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the agency violating these passengers’ Constitutional rights, had been asked, “to assist in locating an individual” who might have been on the plane and was under a deportation order. It turns out that the person in question wasn’t even on that flight – and in reality, that’s not the point anyway. O’Rourke’s further comment to the New York Daily News sums it up:
It’s kind of disturbing to have to hand over your ID like that when you haven’t done anything wrong.
When Rolling Stone asked CBP to produce the law that gave them the authority to demand papers from domestic travelers on a routine flight, the Border Patrol spokesman sent them a link to a document called CBP Search Authority. It gives 19 CFR 162.6 as its reference within the federal law; the only problem is that nowhere in that law does it mention domestic flights. The entire clause is expressly about “entering or leaving the United States” from international locations. When the Rolling Stone reporter asked the CBP spokesman to explain this discrepancy, the response was “at this time this is all I have.” In other words, they do not have the authority to do it – yet.
Perhaps even more disturbing is that even though CBP did not have the authority to perform this demand for documents from domestic travelers, the spokesman made a point of saying that “It is always best to cooperate with law enforcement, so as to expedite your exiting the airport in a timely manner.” We are violating your Constitutional rights, but if you don’t want your entire day disrupted or worse, it’s best if you just go along with it.
The New York Civil Liberties Union weighed in on the subject, and Staff Attorney Jordan Wells wrote that “CBP does not have carte blanche to refuse to let people off a domestic flight until they show ID.” Wells even went so far as to encourage people to remember that “in the United States people have a constitutionally protected right to remain silent,” hinting that they should refuse to produce the wanted documents.
While Rolling Stone, true to its leftist core, paints the entire affair as directly resulting from President Trump’s recent executive orders on illegal immigration, the issue is far more fundamental than that. It does not matter what the agents’ purpose was, or their reasoning behind it. What is important is that they violated the Constitutional rights of a few hundred people, when they knew they didn’t have the authority to do so.
They know what the Constitution says; they just didn’t care.
The world has already seen what happens when individuals in uniform are just following orders. Sadly, Americans will primarily respond the same as well – look the other way, complain under their breath, and do nothing about it.