By Yascha Mounk
American Passports Are Useless Now
Becoming a United States citizen was meaningful to me for a great number of reasons. German by birth, I had come to feel at home in America, and to love it. For all the deep injustices that shape this country, I remained convinced that the United States was more likely than just about any other place in the world to build a thriving, diverse democracy. And when I wrote about the danger that right-wing populists like Donald Trump pose to the American republic, I cherished being able to speak about his assault on our, as opposed to your, values and institutions.
Alongside all these serious reasons, I also had a very practical one: the power of the U.S. passport. It granted access to just about everywhere, and escape from just about anywhere. Which country—Germany or the United States—would be more likely to rescue me if I got stuck in some foreign country in the middle of a perilous political crisis? Would the last plane to evacuate foreigners from Chad or Chile or Canada before that country devolved into civil war be sent by the Bundeswehr or the U.S. Air Force?
U.S. citizenship not only ensured that I could choose to live in New York or San Francisco or any place in between; it also seemed to offer the freedom to roam the world in the assurance that, as my passport’s old-fashioned preamble promises, “the Secretary of State of the United States of America” would see to it that I could “pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need [enjoy] all lawful aid and protection.”
But in this Year of the Pandemic, that promise rings hollow. My German passport, which I was able to retain when I naturalized, currently entitles me to travel almost anywhere in the world. My American passport can gain me access to only a handful of countries—not including Germany or the majority of developed democracies in Asia, Europe, Australia, or South America. The coronavirus is so out of control here that other nations (understandably) fear contamination from our citizens.
My assumption about which country would go to greater lengths to repatriate its citizens in a time of crisis appears to have been wrong, as well. Germany would welcome me back with open arms from this COVID-addled land, though I could be asked to self-isolate. But a draft proposal now circulating in the Trump administration indicates that the U.S. may seek to stop its citizens and legal permanent residents from returning to America from abroad if a border agent “reasonably believes that the individual either may have been exposed to or is infected with the communicable disease.”
Such a proposal would, despite its cruelty, at least have a certain practical utility in countries such as Australia or New Zealand, which have had barely any COVID-19 cases in recent months. But if the plan becomes a reality in the United States, which is discovering some 50,000 cases a day without any help from the outside world, it will add idiocy to injury.
When I became a citizen, back in March 2017, I knew that President Trump would seek to destroy many of the American values I admire. I did not imagine that he would also fail to “leave no man behind.” Shouldn’t that credo hold special appeal to a man who claims to care about protecting America from a dangerous world? Instead of using his office to protect Americans, Trump has capitulated to the coronavirus at home; now his administration may also try to betray Americans abroad.
YASCHA MOUNK is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a senior adviser at Protect Democracy. He is the author of The People vs. Democracy.
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