Passport Privilege

It’s only 10am and already the heat is blistering. It’s the tail end of the dry season in Peñas Blancas, the border zone between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and our sweaty bodies are covered in a fine layer of dry dust, whipped up from the road. We enter the stuffy Nicaraguan immigration office where fans listlessly push stale air here and there. The immigration officer takes a cursory glance at our blue passports comparing our photos to our faces and waves us through. We open the door to exit Nicaragua and our senses are immediately assaulted by the mass of humanity in a type of no-man’s land waiting room between countries.

A toddler wearing nothing but a heavy diaper tries to bolt past me through the door I just exited. I look around for the child’s parent and instead see a slightly older boy doubled over as he rushes past me. He is trailed by his father, who has his hand cupped in front of the boy’s mouth. They make it a few more steps before the floor in front of them is covered in vomit.  

At least 50 other Haitian migrants are spread across the room in various poses of lethargy. It is evident from the smell of body odor and stale air that they have been stuck in this limbo a long time.  

We pick our way through the room without a word and walk purposefully towards the Costa Rican immigration office, approximately 100 meters away. We flash our blue passports and once again are waved through without question. We see another large group of Haitians waiting to cross into Nicaragua as we exit to Costa Rica. We learn that there are camps just beyond view, where hundreds of refugees have been waiting months to continue their journey north to the United States.

A few months later, I spend a week volunteering as an immigration lawyer in an asylum legal aid clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.  I listen to tales of persecution and terror, of violence and cruelty and desperation. Salvadorans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Cameroonians, and Haitians all united in their goal: to apply for and be granted protection from the United States of America. Thousands of refugees are massed in makeshift refugee camps in Mexican border cities, feet away from their goal: the United States. They have been waiting there for months, some for years, while the US border has remained closed to asylum seekers since March 2020. In the meantime, they struggle in dire conditions in shelters or on the streets, in dangerous border towns with no resources to accommodate them.  

I advise them as best as I can about their chances for protection, and at the end of the week I pack my bag, walk across the pedestrian bridge to the border checkpoint, flash my well-worn blue passport once again, and cross into the United States.

I know I am privileged. To many, this means having the financial resources to travel.  I do so as much as possible with my family. I have often heard the comment, “You’re so lucky to be able to take that trip.” My children have been on four continents and in dozens of countries before graduating high school. Indeed, it is an enormous privilege to be able to learn, grow and experience personal change simply by exploring the world.   

The privileges afforded by our blue passports may not be as obvious. US passport holders enjoy visa-free travel to over 170 countries in the world. When planning travel, I rarely need to consider visa restrictions. My biggest concern is finding the cheapest flight, not wondering whether we will be allowed to enter our chosen destination.  

Why is it important to recognize and understand our privileges?  

Not everybody shares our reality. Privilege refers to the unearned advantages and opportunities a person has simply for being who they are. If you are a United States citizen, you are privileged by virtue of your ability to cross most countries’ boundaries. The world is a more welcoming place to those of us who are able to explore it and a richer place for those who experience it in person. The vast majority of people do not enjoy the same freedom to travel in the same way I do. Having a passport does not mean the same thing to citizens of other countries. It’s often shocking for US citizens to learn that there are countries – the US among them – that are simply inaccessible by virtue of where a person was born.  

Recognizing privilege isn’t enough though. Privilege comes with a responsibility to use it wisely, as a tool for positive change. How can you use your US passport as a tool for positive change?  By using it. Get out in the world. Explore. Get off the beaten track, or at the very least, leave the all-inclusive resort and meet people from the country you’re visiting. Step beyond your comfort zone and get into unfamiliar situations. Walk around the local market and eat food prepared by local vendors. When you do these things,you’ll see that people are basically the same all over the world and we all want the same basic things: to live and raise our families in safety with opportunities ahead.

The privilege of travel obligates us to be more conscious of our freedoms.  It also obligates us to understand our role in the world: that those of us who live in safety with the luxury of free movement need to stand up for those who are endangered and trapped.  Once upon a time, the United States was a leader in humanitarian protection, offering refuge to the tired, hungry and poor.  Today the United States government has turned its back on tens of thousands of refugees begging for protection at our door. 

I hold the pollyanna-ish belief that travel is the answer to world peace. That recognizing our shared humanity means we cannot be enemies. As you contemplate how you can do good in the world, think about how your blue passport and its privileges can contribute.  

Rebecca Eichler