Passport Privilege

“Excuse me, I just asked you a question.”

A hostile British accent jolted me out of my jet-lagged stupor, and I found myself at the other end of a middle-aged Caucasian woman’s unrelenting stare.

“Sorry, could you repeat that?” I asked in the most professional manner I could muster through my exhaustion, squirming a little under her unsympathetic gaze.

“I asked, why do you travel to Europe so much?” She narrowed her eyes at me as if she thought my response was about to be inadequate, something I thought unfair due to our brief interaction.

“Uh, because I like Europe?” I guess her critical premature judgment was warranted after all.

Disgusted, the woman began to scrutinize everything about my disheveled appearance from my tangled hair to the ­­red stain on my shirt I received while attempting to eat cherry tomatoes in an airplane seat. Finally, she inquired disdainfully, “Do you know the restrictions on travel in Europe without a visa for Americans?”

I pondered her question for a second but realized I actually did not know. I then communicated this fact to her with my intelligent and thorough response of “Nope.”

The immigration officer slowly flipped through my passport in stern silence. After five excruciatingly long minutes, she stamped my American passport so unwillingly that I snatched it and sprinted away before she could change her mind. While waiting in baggage claim, I had the time to consider the full impact of what had happened. This spring break, while in an immigration line in London, I almost found myself in a situation I had never experienced before, a situation non-Western citizens encounter almost every time they travel: my passport inhibited my freedom of movement.

As a Third Culture Kid, I cannot separate travel from my life. I am extremely lucky and grateful to have grown up in three unique countries with people of many races, ideologies, and cultures, and to have had the opportunity to visit countless others. However, this ease of mobility essential to my TCK existence is a privilege manufactured by my American passport, a passport that in 2016 allows entry into 174 countries without a visa. As seen from my experience in London, I am oftentimes guilty of not checking American visa regulations before getting on a flight; more than once I have found myself standing in an immigration line desperately google-ing whether or not I needed a visa. However, before this March, my American passport had never been an issue due to the extensive diplomatic freedoms Americans are allowed. I believed in the privileges of the American passport so much so that I was even outraged to be subject to such close examination; after all, I was American not Syrian. That thought is horrible and deeply problematic, and I had thought because I had unconsciously internalized the implications of our current system of travel, an extremely hierarchical structure where patriotism often serves as a guise for racism and classism.

In his article in The Guardian titled, “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants,” Mawana Koutonin explores the colonial connotations of travel language. Examining the language itself, Merriam-Webster dictionary defines expatriate to be someone living in a foreign land,” while an immigrant is a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.” While these definitions themselves are neither racist nor classist, Koutonin argues that these terms are not interchangeable in our current society; they symbolize a racist system of human migration “created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else.” He argues that immigrant is a “term set aside for ‘inferior races,” while expat is a “term reserved exclusively for Western white people going to work abroad,” creating a hierarchy among foreign workers depending on their race.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I have personally seen how these words are used to create hierarchy: those with Western passports are deemed “expats” no matter how long their stay, while Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers are merely “guests,” even if they have lived in Hong Kong for decades. However, while Koutonin claims the reason for the contrast is due to race, not all agree. Ruchika Tulshyan, a journalist and “global nomad,” blogs in the Wall Street Journal that “socioeconomic discrimination is at the heart of dissent [of terminology].”Yael Ossowski, a Canadian journalist living in Austria, defines expats to be people allowed diplomatic freedoms due to their passports who, in our current visa situation, just happen to be white. However, even though people disagree over the root cause of these hierarchical terms, the fact is that the distinction remains.

In a sense, each journalist is correct: it is almost impossible to separate race from economic status from passport status, and as such all of these factors are relevant in the segregation of immigrants from expatriates in the travel discourse. According to Credit Suisse, the richest nations in 2015, with wealth per adult over USD 100,000, are Western countries with only a few exceptions as depicted in their figure below. Added together, North America and Europe account for 67% of global household wealth, but only 18% of the world’s adult population. In comparison, for all non-Western continents household wealth fails to match the population share. And while I am not arguing that the Western world is entirely white, or that “white” and “the West” are interchangeable, historically white identity was a norm socially constructed in the Western world to define itself in opposition with inferior others. As such, privilege exists in this interconnected state: in a white, wealthy, and Western space.

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However, this segregation of privilege would not continue to be possible if it were not for the advantages of certain passports made possible by visa distinctions. If our world were truly globalized, if people were free to move about and settle wherever they choose for whatever reason whether that be economic, personal, or political opportunity, people of all races, classes, and socioeconomic statuses would be found around the world in more equal numbers. But the fact is that people are restricted in movement, and some more so than others depending on where they were born.

Imagine you are planning a trip around the world. Nowhere in international law is there a right to freedom of movement, even if globalization and the increasing amount of cross-border travel suggest otherwise. Thus, in order to travel, you must show documentation of your national identity, along with a valid visa depending on where you wish to travel and what passport you hold. Every country you arrive at will choose to either allow or deny you entry by weighing the economic and political benefits you represent against your perceived threat to its security. However, how you are weighed is highly dependent on where you are from due to the current travel structure that disadvantages non-Western passports.

According to the Henly Index, the passports of Germany, Sweden, Finland, France, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom are the top passports to hold with access to 175 countries or more. Of the top thirty most accessible passports, only three are from non-Western countries. Eric Neumayer of the London School of Economics claims that for passport holders from poor, authoritarian countries with a history of violent political conflict, travel is and remains severely restricted.” Thus, the hierarchy of expat-immigrant terminology exists in this bigger issue of travel privilege where separations by race and class are deemed acceptable by visa restrictions. Modern diplomatic relations cannot be detached from the historical inequalities of colonialism that racism and classism sanctioned all those years ago.

Western passport holders have passport privilege people would die for, and people do. According to The Guardian, eight migrants die everyday trying to reach countries in Europe and North America. These deaths go largely unnoticed because according to international codes of migration, the right to defend citizenry overshadows the right to life. This right to defend citizenry thus demands an examination of the role of patriotism in preserving travel privilege. In the only book in existence dedicated to the philosophical study of patriotism, Stephen Nathanson defines moderate patriotism as a preference for one’s nation, its traditions and institutions, and one’s fellow nationals, within the limits of morality or “the legitimate needs and interests of other nations” and their nationals. However, the turning away of refugees fleeing from violence and death in their home countries, even if to prevent overpopulation and threats to security, seems to violate this code.

Paul Gomberg of University of California, Davis, contends, in a society where all ethnic groups have roughly equal economic resources, a practice of favoring one’s own nationality or ethnic group might not be unjust.” But in an unequal society, such as the one we currently live in, national favoritism in theory leads to a more prosperous nation as jobs are secured in wealthy countries and poorer nations are left to remain poorer. However, when considering that an overwhelming majority of the non-white world cannot afford to put food on the table or shelter their families, as illustrated by the widening gap in life expectancy between the developing and the developed world, national favoritism violates basic human rights.

Why is it easier for an American to work legally in Mexico, but not the other way around? Why should Western nations continue to be allowed to extend privileges only to other white nations, when the reason Western countries have more wealth in the first place is due to the original colonialism and subjugation of developing countries? Thousands of people are denied access to foreign countries simply based on their nationality while, as I mentioned before, I can easily enter 174 countries without a second thought. As the people turned away are essentially being sent back to a life of violence and even death while I am allowed to roam freely, does that mean I am somehow allowed more inherent privileges? And in the current classist and racist system of travel the answer is yes, because of my passport my life is worth more.

I did not write this article to argue that all countries should allow all nationals, or even that the right world is a borderless world. I simply wish to question the discrimination present in our current system of travel, especially at a time when prominent politicians are basing their running platforms off of stricter immigration laws and Britain voted to leave the European Union. Expatriates and immigrants should be defined based on length of stay and not other identifying factors. Visa regimes and foreign policies should allow non-Western countries the opportunities of mobility Western countries are allowed today, opportunities Westerners created for themselves through a violent history of colonialism and imperialism. I guess what I am truly wondering is this: why, if racism and classism are unacceptable in modern day society, does patriotism not only continue to exist but is also actively encouraged?