O'Donovan, PJ, Himself
2010-05-05 11:11:17 UTC
by Paul Theroux
"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
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,
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
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,
“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
“Perché la persecuzione?” I said lightly. “What about the other
“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
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
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.