You know how countries have slogans, like Thailand is “The Land of Smiles”? That seems like a lot of pressure on citizens and tourists alike. An entire land of constant smiles? Even when you have lower back pain or you’ve just been served surprise divorce papers: Smile!
It’s been encouraging to see countries throw off this corporate-style branding in recent times. Did you know that America’s last attempt at a slogan was the 2016 “It’s all within reach”? Of course, we’re unable to say it with a straight face anymore after years of travel bans. “It’s aspirational,” we murmur beneath our masks, wincing as the country isolates and dips farther and farther down in the world’s estimation. Ireland regularly promoted itself as “The Land of a Thousand Welcomes” — until the coronavirus came along and coughed on that idea, rendering it high-risk.
The list of countries with borders open to Americans has never been shorter. But for now, Ireland, unlike many others in Europe, is still allowing Americans in. It’s the welcome part that’s missing. American tourists who don’t feel like quarantining and instead hope to drink and dine at recently and cautiously reopened restaurants and bars are being soundly turned away.
This is of interest to me, an Irish citizen who lives in the United States, because of my recent trip back. I went to Ireland when the pandemic started, figuring it would be safer. It was. In fact, Ireland has one of the lowest rates of Covid-19 in Europe. However, I missed my home and my life and mainly Shake Shack, so I decided to go back to New York. It wasn’t easy, because of the travel ban the United States has put in place on people coming from Europe. This obstacle was new to me. An Irish passport is a powerful one that usually admits me to most parts of the world, and an American visa like the one I have in my passport is an equally rare and precious thing.
Suddenly, though, doors were being slammed shut and gates locked tight. I decided to return through Canada. I applied for and got my visa waiver online within minutes. I flew to London but was not allowed on the connecting flight to Toronto. It turns out Canada has an extensive travel ban too; Canadians are just too polite to shout about it. Between the jigs and the reels, as we say in Brooklyn, I had to come through Mexico. Not just transit through — I had to stay there for 14 days, which I did last month. This itinerary was not my choice and certainly not logical, but that’s what the travel ban did; it forced me to take two extra long-haul flights, as well as holding me squarely in the beautiful and resilient Mexico City, which at that time was a hot spot experiencing record-high levels of infection.
I was there during the June 23 earthquake. It was the first one I had experienced, and the shock waves made my building sway. In the end, I made it back to New York, flying over the land border that is now all but closed to those seeking asylum. I quarantined and I’m grateful to be home.
I remain rocked by how something as physically flimsy as a passport and as artlessly made as a border serve to divide human beings up into two camps, the powerful and the powerless. Of course, this is not new information to billions of people in the world. My inconvenient route home was hardly a taste of the reality lived by most people today. It’s just that now this bad luck is finally going around. Americans are now barred from visiting most of the rest of the planet. Perhaps now that American passports have stopped working and this nation-state is no longer on top, more of us will understand the injustice of the entire system.
What to do with this understanding, I’m not quite sure. One option is to hew ever closer to the bald and horrifying reality that we — any and all of us — are not entitled to any rights because we are human beings, rather because we happen to be born in such and such a country, and to act accordingly. To shut down, to prioritize ourselves and vigorously declare to hell with everybody else. Fine. Although we’ve been trying that and it isn’t actually working. In fact, it seems pretty self-destructive.
Borders and bans and even nation-states, along with all of the laws and violence that hold them together and apart, are relatively new compared with how long humans have been around. Now that more of us are seeing and living the constricting and dangerous reality of those artificial distinctions, surely we need to change them. The person, the human being, the vulnerable creature no different from any other, that is what is sacred. Not their paperwork. Americans are learning that now. And what easier way than being gently turned away from an Irish pub?
Maeve Higgins (@maevehiggins) is the author of “Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl From Somewhere Else” and a contributing Opinion writer.
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