Lawful Harassment

I just read this amazing report from a Russian-born British journalist who is married to an American about the apparently lawful harassment of foreign journalists coming into the United States. This kind of incident makes me wonder how many more stories like this are going to crop up in late July when thousands of foreign journalists descend on Boston to cover the Democratic National Convention. But more importantly, I worry that this kind of thing just makes America look even worse in the eyes of foreign travelers. At what point does the U.S. tourism industry start suffering because foreign tourists decide to go somewhere else because they do not want to deal with the ridiculous process our U.S. Homeland Security department puts them through?

This incident reminds me of the craziness I had to deal with at Domodedovo airport in March of 2003 when I was flying from Moscow to Malta. I said goodbye to my friend Elena and attempted to go through customs. The Russian security agent asked me how much U.S. cash I had on me. I knew it was less than the $10,000 legal limit, so I opened my wallet and showed him that I was carrying $143 in U.S. cash. He looked at my declaration form where I had failed to specify it. He then tried to consficate my money, even though I knew it was way under the limit imposed to catch money launderers trying to smuggle cash out of Russia. I argued with him for about 10 minutes and refused to give up the money. He then tried to let me bribe him with $50 so that I could get through customs and catch my plane. I refused and then turned around and went back to the terminal where my friend Elena was catching a flight to her city in Siberia. I found her, explained to her what was going on and we returned to my gate where she explained to the gate security guy in Russian that I knew the law and there was no way I was going to give up my $143 in cash just because he was an authority figure and I was a foreign tourist who had to catch a flight. He looked pised but knew that I was motivated to not let him rip me off so he waived me through without any more trouble.

This story illustrates how rigid laws in a country where laws are not enforced are easily broken by people in a position of authority. I wonder what would have happened had I demanded to see his supervisor. Would I have found myself in Russian airport jail bent over with glove-clad agents inspecting my ass for hidden money? Probably not, but what if I were a foreign journalist trying to enter the U.S. to do my job? At some point, laws become too rigid and ridiculous and if authority figures are not held accountable for their irresponsible actions, then we’ve got a lot of work to do to repair our reputation as a free and open country that welcomes international travelers.

Posted by Cameron Barrett at June 7, 2004 08:35 PM