Friday, December 21, 2007

What! No Border Guards!

After being grilled at Bush Intercontinental about my citizenship, it's strange to think that a person can travel from the west coast of Portugal to the edge of Russia without being asked for a passport.

A couple of years ago I was returning to the United States and was asked about what neighborhood I lived in and how I liked it. Was the officer wanting to see if I had an accent? Was he trying to see if I really knew my neighborhood? It made me think that I should carry around the hospital records of when I was born (St. Joseph Hospital in Houston, obstetrician Dr. Baldwin).

More recently, a close family friend from Argentina was flying from Buenos Aires to NY. She had her Argentinian passport and had in fact been going back and forth between Buenos Aires and NY for several years while she was in school at NYU. This last time she was detained for 2 hours. ICE officers decided that her name was now on some type of list, even though her travel visa and all her documents were in order.

The U.S. media has reported that tourism to the U.S. has dropped significantly due to this unwelcome attitude at our international check points. The recent changes at European borders make us look all the more ridiculous.

As for the photo, I realize its an "altered" image, but at the same time, it feels so real when I think of all the times I've crossed a U.S. border check point. When it comes to the southern border and crossing in a car... I've told the border agents, it seems like a war zone.

In Europe, Opening Night at the Border
9 More Nations Drop Checkpoints, a 'Monumental Event' in One Hemmed-In Locale
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 21, 2007; A32

HRADEK NAD NISOU, Czech Republic -- For more than 60 years, this remote stretch of bottomland was one of the most closely guarded sectors of Central Europe.

The borders of three countries -- Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic -- intersect here along the Neisse River. For as long as anyone can remember, the rhythms of life on all sides have been regulated by a dense network of security depots, road barriers and immigration checkpoints that were originally designed to keep people out and prevent others from leaving.

On Friday, however, each of the crossings will finally go dark as borders are thrown open here and along frontiers that had separated Eastern and Western Europe since the end of World War II. The last vestiges of the Iron Curtain will disappear.

With fireworks and speeches, the switch began shortly after midnight Friday at multiple crossing points up and down the long frontier, as people crossed from country to country freely, no questions asked. At the frontier between Austria and Slovakia, leaders of the two nations ceremonially hand-sawed through a red and white border barrier.

For the first time, travelers have the freedom to drive east from the Algarve coast of Portugal all the way to the edge of Russia without encountering a border guard demanding proof of identification.

"It will be a monumental event," said Martin Puta, mayor of Hradek nad Nisou, a town of about 7,500 people. "It will not only mean the end of border controls, but also the end of a psychological barrier."

Europe's border-free zone has been expanding gradually since 1985, when Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg agreed to allow one another's citizens free passage into and out of their territories.

The catalyst for the latest extension was the 2004 admission of 10 countries -- mostly from Eastern Europe -- to the European Union. Preparations have been underway ever since to dismantle the checkpoints but also to standardize policing and immigration rules for the new members.

Not all European countries have signed up for borderless travel. Britain and Ireland decided not to join, and most of the Balkan countries have been kept out. Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus will be phased in over the next four years.

The ease of travel between Eastern and Western Europe had already eased significantly in recent years. Czechs, Poles and Germans in this area, known as the Little Triangle, had to flash only a driver's license when crossing the border. Pedestrians walking over the many international footbridges and hiking paths here could do so without breaking stride.

Merchants advertising cut-rate fuel, cigarettes and liquor have become a border staple. It's hard to find a gas station these days in Zittau, Germany; residents can save the equivalent of about 80 cents a gallon by driving a half-mile to Porajow, Poland, to take advantage of lower fuel taxes there.

Andre Matthausch, 35, owner of a popular Zittau bar and restaurant, already crosses into Poland and the Czech Republic to shop five times a week. He's signed up to take Czech language classes in January, in part because he has friends there but also because he's seen an increase in Czech customers at his bar.

His grandfather used to tell stories about how he'd drive across the Czech border to go dancing before the Cold War put a stop to it. "Now he can go dancing again," Matthausch said with a laugh.

Others, however, fret that the new freedoms will bring problems. In particular, many Germans worry that criminals from their less prosperous neighbors will see the open borders as an invitation to come steal cars and rob houses.

Some German police officials have criticized politicians for rushing to eliminate the border controls. Konrad Freiberg, director of Germany's national police union, said German police lack digital radios to communicate with their Czech and Polish counterparts, who are better equipped. He also said there is confusion among officers over how much leeway they have to chase crooks into other countries.

"There will be more crime in the border regions, more break-ins, more human trafficking, whether of immigrants or prostitutes or whomever, because criminals will know that we are limited in our powers of pursuing them across the borders," Freiberg said. "They will simply cross back and forth and be relatively safe."

But many residents of the tri-border area here say the increased convenience will outweigh any risks.

Peter Peuber, 43, owns a pizzeria in Hradek nad Nisou. Every morning, he and his wife drive their boys, Peter and Paul, to elementary school in Zittau. The trip is only about two miles, but they must first cross a checkpoint into Polish territory and then, 500 yards later, another one into Germany. "You never know how much time it might take to get across," he said.

In practical terms, he figures the end of the checkpoints means that his kids will be able to sleep an extra 10 or 15 minutes each morning and get a later start for school. But he also predicted that it will take a long time for residents to get used to the idea that they can cross the border whenever they want, wherever they want, and that nobody will care.

"For many people, it will be strange, and they'll probably stop at the border anyway to try to make sure that somebody has seen them go by," he said. "As long as the border huts are still standing, people will stop."

In Bogatynia, a town of about 20,000 people that serves as the Polish anchor of the Little Triangle, the deputy mayor, Jerzy Stachyra, echoed the sentiment that the concept of borders will take longer to disappear in people's minds. He recalled growing up behind the Iron Curtain and said it could be extraordinarily difficult to gain permission to visit what were then East Germany and Czechoslovakia, even though both were also communist members of the Warsaw Pact.

"From where I lived, I could see the houses of Germany and the Germans walking along the river," he recalled. "But if you had told me 20 years ago that you could one day cross the border like nothing was there, I would never have believed it."

Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.


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