Arizona, Show Your Papers? So What!

Is asking drivers for ID in Arizona so different from cops in Italy asking train passengers for passports? Travel writer Paul Theroux on how the new law compares to other countries'.

These people who are protesting being asked for identification by Arizona cops—have they been anywhere lately, like out of the country? Like Mexico, or Canada, or India, or Italy, or Tanzania, or Singapore, or Britain—places where people in uniforms have routinely demanded my papers? Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen is offended (“as a Latin American”) by the Arizona law and recently claimed that all illegal immigrants are “workaholics.” Has he been back to the land of his birth lately, Venezuela, and expected not to be asked for his papers? Ozzie, tell the police in Ocumare del Tuy, “I’m a Latin American,” and see if that will end the interrogation. And spare a thought for the policeman two days ago who was gunned down in the desert by a workaholic drug dealer.

The request for papers is not just a line in Casablanca. I have been hearing the question my whole traveling life. I had an Alien Registration Card in Britain and got occasional visits from the police at my home, to make sure I was behaving myself. Seventeen years in Britain as an alien: papers. Six years in Africa: “Where are your papers, bwana?” Three years in Singapore: another alien identity card and immense red tape in that fussy, litigious bureaucracy.

A large proportion of the Brazilians on Cape Cod are illegals, working off the books, indignant that they would ever be asked to identify themselves. Ever been to Brazil? I have. “Where are your papers, meester?”

As for the U.S., it is annoying, but understandable, especially in a country with 12 million illegal immigrants using the public services. “Who are you?” is a routine question: The necessity to identify yourself to authority is something that happens every day. You present a credit card at the supermarket and they want to see your license to make sure you’re not a grafter. All over the place, renting a car, at the bank: “I’ll need to see two forms of ID.”

Peter Beinart: Fear of Immigrants In Toronto last year I had to show my passport to check into my hotel. You can’t check into any hotel in India or China or buy certain railway tickets there without showing your passport and having all your details recorded. So why should an Indian or a Chinese in the U.S. be surprised if he or she is stopped for speeding by a policeman in Flagstaff and asked for a proof of residence?

Not long ago I was in Italy, traveling by train from the small city of Udine, in the north, to Venice, a ride of about an hour and a half. I was sitting in a car among the usual people you find in an Italian train on a Saturday morning—families with children, old women with groceries, grubby students, and obvious non-Italians, a scattering of Asians and West Africans. And yet, when two policemen entered the car, one of them stood by the door and the other headed directly for me.

I showed him my train ticket. He brushed it aside and said, “Nazionalitá?”


“Passaporto.” And he stuck out his hand.

“It’s in my hotel,” I said, in Italian. “Why do I need it?”

“You’re a foreigner,” he said. Straniero is a nice word: alien, stranger, outsider. “Foreigners have to carry their passports at all times.”

“Perché la persecuzione?” I said lightly. “What about the other foreigners here?”

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“Non fare farabutto!” he said very sharply. This is not a happy expression. It means unequivocally, “Don’t be a wise-ass.”

I showed him my Hawaii driver’s license and he spent the next 10 minutes on his cellphone spelling my name and reciting aloud all the information on my license, including my unpronounceable Hawaii address, to Headquarters.

My Italian friends were abashed when I told them, but they then moaned about all the Albanians, Moghrebis, Slovenians, Senegalese, Pakistanis, and others who had taken illegal residence in that part of Italy, delightful Friuli. A few might be mopping floors, making coffee, or catering to the sexual needs of Italian men, but the rest are ill-assorted, a combination of parasites, takers, layabouts, moaners, drug dealers, and hard workers.

Many illegal aliens in Italy are also migrant workers, according to the season, picking grapes in Sicily, olives in Puglia, oranges in Calabria, and tomatoes in the Campania. Earlier this year thousands of farm workers from Africa rioted in Calabria, claiming they were being targeted by racists. Maybe the cop on the Venice train mistook me for a fruit-picker.

Such exploited labor is common in the U.S., even at the highest levels. It is always something of a comedy when someone nominated by an American president for an important Cabinet post, invariably wealthy, invariably with a law degree, is revealed to have an illegal nanny, or housecleaner, or gardener in the household. The potential candidate (Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Linda Chavez, and many others) withdraws in disgrace, and you always wonder: What happened to the illegal nanny? I assume they go on working. “Our kids adore Concepcion. They’d be devastated if she was deported.”

After Ireland became more prosperous, and the Irish students stopped traveling to Cape Cod for the summer to work in motels and restaurants, a new source of cheap labor was needed. Nantucketers and Vineyarders and Capies depended on Jamaicans and Brazilians to cut their grass and take care of their kids. Brazilians comprise the fastest-growing ethnic community on Cape Cod. They represent the whole social scale, from God-botherers, roofers, landscapers, and garage mechanics, to petty thieves and drug dealers. A large proportion of them are illegals, working off the books, indignant that they would ever be asked to identify themselves.

Ever been to Brazil? I have. “Where are your papers, meester?”

As for this Arizona law (which is understandable until the federal government takes a stand), I am delighted to be reassured that there will be no racial profiling. The illegals in Arizona are not just Hispanics. Those of you who have read Dark Star Safari, my book about traveling through Africa, might remember how, in the Sudan, I met a Sudanese man (on vacation in Khartoum from New York) who explained very carefully how he had entered the United States illegally, the best way: Go to Mexico, pay someone some money, and then hide in a fish truck or a vegetable van and hop the border. Sudanese, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Indians, Bangladeshis, Brazilians. Illegal aliens come from all over the world to converge on the Arizona, California, and New Mexico borders. The Hispanics are right to be a little indignant, but just a little. It is much easier to sneak into the U.S. than to apply for a residence permit.

My eldest son was born in Uganda, when I was resident there. He has American nationality, of course; but because he has spent most of his life traveling and working abroad, his son, my grandson, born in Britain, of an English mother, does not automatically qualify for U.S. citizenship. If I can prove that I am an American (my ancestors arrived here in 1690) then the little boy might have a chance; but it is not a slam dunk. We have filed the papers; we are into our second year of waiting. Then he might have his papers. In the meantime, take a number.

Paul Theroux is a travel writer and novelist whose best known work, The Great Railway Bazaar, is a travelogue about a train trip from Britain through Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and then back across Russia to his point of origin. In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008) he retraced that trip. His latest novel is A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta.