The notorious colour argument at border-crossings

ONE morning several years ago, an MP's secretary agreed to meet me off a train in rural Wales and take me to her boss for an interview. The train arrived on time and about 15 people got off, leaving just me standing there.

By Gary Younge

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Published: Thu 1 Feb 2007, 8:15 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:08 AM

A middle-aged woman remained looking straight through me for what seemed like an age before it occurred to her that the black man with whom she was sharing the platform might just be the Guardian journalist she was supposed to be meeting. She said she was expecting someone taller.

I was reminded of that incident last August as I crossed into the US from the Mexican border town of Palomas. I was travelling with a photographer -- a white Mexican with dual Spanish citizenship who, unlike me, did not have a visa to work as a journalist in the US. I thought there would be a problem. I didn't realise the problem would be me.

The border guard arranged for dogs to sniff my belongings and other guards to search my hire car, while she checked out my visa, asked me where I was born so many times I could barely remember, and made me explain every stamp in my passport. Meanwhile the visa-less photographer had been waved through.

The Home Office report, Exploring the Decision-Making of Immigration Officers, published last week, provides further evidence of what most non-white travellers have long known to be true. That the practice of profiling on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion persists at borders around the world. Compared with all the strip-searching, deportations and interrogations that go on, I have got off lightly. My granny was once questioned for more than three hours after arriving from Barbados.These abuses are not systematic. According to the report, British immigration officers say they base their decisions on "instinct" or "intuition" about people who "look the part". On further inspection these sixth senses turn out to be total nonsense - a grab-bag of "received wisdom" constructed from stereotypes that are anything but wise. "American ladies who've got loads of jewellery on ... their hair is perfect ... their makeup is perfect and their clothes are really nice" apparently get their approval. Young women in "white stilettos and short skirts", however, could be prostitutes.

But the abuses are systemic. For what looks like an individual's hunch is little more than the accumulated weight of assumption, presumption and prejudice, entrenched by global economics and sustained by local politics. Capital, we are told, must flow freely around the world to ensure international prosperity. The trouble is, this prosperity remains elusive to many in a world where about half the people live on less than $2 a day and the rules of international trade are weighted against the poor. Facing hunger and destitution, the poor move in search of work. But when they seek to gain access to the wealthiest countries -- the very ones that created the rules that keep them poor -- the doors are closed. Politicians desperate to galvanise popular support at home argue not for correcting the global inequalities in wealth but instead for stiffer immigration laws to keep the poor out.

The authors of the report insist that this has nothing to do with racism, insisting instead that socioeconomic factors play a key role. In other words these people weren't more likely to be stopped because they were black but because they were poor and therefore more likely to be seeking work or drawing on public funds.

There are two main problems with this conclusion. First, it isn't true. Not only do the researchers provide no evidence for their conclusion, but the evidence they do provide suggests the contrary. When the figures were adjusted to take occupation into account, the discrepancy widened dramatically for all but the Americans. Non-white South Africans became 18 times more likely to be stopped, and non-white Canadians 13.5 times. Moreover, when translated into sterling, the mean income of a black Canadian is almost double that of a white South African. Yet a black Canadian is four times more likely to be stopped than a white South African.

Second, even if it were true, it is still wrong. For if the barriers to entry into the West are racist in practice, they are avowedly and unashamedly classist in intent. "For some immigration officers, credibility is essentially a matter of economics," states the report. In this particular respect the officers are really just doing their job: actively excluding poor people who it seems no longer have the right to travel around the West with dignity and without suspicion.

The basic right to the freedom of movement was championed as one of the central criticisms of the eastern bloc. But as soon as the wall came down we built another huge one to replace it.

For the wealthy, however, it is a different matter. The report claimed that immigration officers have learned to "no longer ... ask a well-travelled American businessman how much money he has brought with him or for details of his bank balance".

So the man most likely to steal your pension walks through without a word, while the one most likely to flip your burger or clean your house hugs the bottom of trains because legitimate means of entry are barred. So much for global citizenship.

So long as there are nation states, there will be borders and immigration laws to regulate them. The least we can do is drop the pretence that these laws are fair. They are not designed to discriminate between people, but against them.

Guardian News Service

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