I’m not deluding myself that anyone in the Obama administration is actually reading this blog. Still, the more of us speak up the better, so here it goes.
You did say, Mr. President, that you would support science. “Restore it to its rightful place”, if I remember correctly. You have put a good deal of money behind that promise, and we’re very grateful for that.
You must know – if not as a President then as a former academic – how much we depend on international collaboration, including travel and movement of people across borders.
The new TSA regulations, if they stay in place, will make our travel to the U.S. just about impossible.
Right now, it’s mostly affecting the holiday travellers who have to get back home from their Christmas holidays. They have no choice but to shut up and put up with it. But come January, you might see a drop in the attendance of international participants at professional meetings. Some of the NSF panelists might not show up, or institute board members, or many others who volunteer their time and expertise without compensation and expect to be treated like the decent human beings that they are. And the research stars that your top universities would like to recruit might pass on that interview because they don’t want to have to fly in diapers.
Actually, it looks like the Bathroom Rule has been rescinded, and if this is correct then that’s good news. But Canadian airports were all but paralyzed on Sunday, with many U.S.-bound flights cancelled or delayed by many hours, and as of now we’re not allowed carry-on luggage on flights from Canada to the U.S. Personally, I would not travel to a conference without a carry-on bag. Chances are too high that my checked bags won’t make it there with me, and I do need a change of clothes when I get there. (And yes, this is a Transport Canada regulation, but it was only imposed so as to meet the conditions dictated by the TSA.)
I do want to feel safe when I’m flying. I don’t mind the metal detectors at the airports and I wouldn’t want someone to pull out a gun in the middle of a flight. I just don’t see how the new regulations are helping. They’re not likely to be any more effective than the War on Shampoo, which has frustrated legitimate travellers but did not prevent the latest incident. See this essay by Bruce Schneier if you haven’t already.
And this is only the latest addition to an already long list of concerns. There are many of us who are reluctant to travel to the U.S., and not because we’re worried about terrorism. We are more concerned about the security theater, the long delays at checkpoints and the invasive search procedures. We are worried that mistaken identity or some other error will put us on a secret list and we will be turned away at the border, if not worse. We are concerned about racial profiling – there’s a large percentage of immigrants among scientists, including many with various shades of dark skin.
There are real costs to making millions of law-abiding visitors feel unwelcome, and it’s not just tourism. It’s also the less obvious things, such as the participation of international scientists in the U.S. science community. And we are only one of the many professional groups who will be adversely affected. Rumour has it that Chicago lost its Olympic bid in part due to international concerns about travelling to the U.S. That committee must be pleased right now with the decision they made.
And one more related point. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on something called “honest services fraud” in the appeal cases of Conrad Black and Bruce Weyhrauch; a third case, that of Jeffrey Skilling, is coming up shortly. Here are a few selected quotes:
Is the law violated if a worker reads the racing form after misleading the boss into thinking he was actually working? What about playing hookey to go to a ball game? Or telling the boss you liked his hat when you really didn’t? More broadly, might the law be so vague that 100 million workers might be violating it without knowing it? […]
So, the Justices wondered, if “the average citizen” cannot know what the law outlaws, can the law be constitutional?
When the government lawyer was attempting to describe what kind of personal “conflicts of interest” would violate the statute, Justice Breyer commented: “And this is supposed to be something that the average citizen…just knows all about.”
Soon, Breyer was conjuring up “comic examples” of what kind of conduct might be made criminal under this fraud provision. […] After Dreeben had attempted to defend those types of conduct as within the statute, Justice Scalia wondered why Congress did not adopt those specifics “instead of setting up this mush of language.” What, Scalia asked pointedly, “is the citizen supposed to do?…If you have a principle that the citizen is supposed to know and he is violating a criminal statute, this is just too much.”
The Chief Justice made the same point, saying that, if a citizen cannot understand the law, then it is invalid.
What a beautiful concept: law that an average citizen can understand. But this should not apply only to the likes of Mr. Black and Mr. Skilling. It should apply just as well to the millions of people who cross the border every year. Law-abiding citizens should not have to approach the checkpoint worrying that our paperwork might not be good enough, even if it meets the posted requirements as far as we can tell. We should not find ourselves in a “gotcha” situation if we have done everything we reasonably could to comply with the rules. That has not happened to me – I’m one of those types who check their paperwork several times and then bring a few extra documents just in case – but I’ve heard enough such stories to be concerned.
Wouldn’t that make for a more friendly border.