Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
Ninety seconds. That’s my record for getting through border controls at John F. Kennedy International Airport, armed with my Global Entry card. Customs took an additional two minutes (Global Entry card holders have their own line). This streamlined processing by the Trusted Traveler program allowed me to plan same-day business, rather than spend hours in line.
The Trump administration’s suspension of Global Entry, NEXUS and other Trusted Traveler programs for residents of New York state, announced Wednesday by Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, will change all that. According to Wolf, new enrollments and re-enrollments for the service that costs $100 every five years are no longer possible, although current card holders can in theory continue to participate in the program until their special status expires.
While the official reason Wolf gave for the move was national security, in reality an authoritarian cocktail of spite, corruption and racism drives this decision – one that will make America less secure and less efficient.
Every autocrat has an obsession, and one of President Donald Trump’s is targeting immigrants as part of a crusade to rally his base and keep America a majority-white and Christian territory. His Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is targeting New York state because of its Green Light Law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses and forbids government officials from turning over Department of Motor Vehicles records to federal officials.
Without that information, Wolf claims, the government can’t vet people for Trusted Traveler status.
National security experts and former Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials say that’s not just untrue but also dangerous. Trump’s action will place vetted and non-vetted travelers together in lines for protracted periods of time. “This makes all air travelers less safe,” tweeted Marco Lopez, who served as CBP chief of staff when Global Entry program launched. “Best crime fighting tool in the skies.”
Revoking Global Entry has less to do with security than with the latest retaliation by Trump against a state that contains New York City, a place he felt has never really accepted him. More precisely, the New York City area, home to two busy international airports, Newark and JFK, is now a sanctuary for immigrants – and to a state attorney general’s office that under Barbara Underwood and now Letitia James has investigated him for alleged corruption and forced him to dissolve his Trump Foundation for what Underwood said was a “shocking pattern” of illegal behaviors.
“No one is above the law, not even the President,” says James. Trump feels differently: he uses the law as a weapon against his enemies.
What does Trump really want to obtain with this power play? As always with authoritarians, the people and businesses that will lose time needlessly are just his pawns. His real targets are New York City and state politicians who have defied him: he hopes to make them unpopular and put pressure on them to renounce sanctuary cities, investigations and other measures that stand in the way of his personal and ideological goals. His further targets are other cities – and whole states, such as California – whose leaders must now be wondering: Are we next? And if so, what will the retaliation look like?
The Trump administration also knows well that taking away vetted status can mean more difficulties for his racial targets, opening travelers up to profiling if they have the wrong names or skin colors. As one of thousands wrongly placed on a State Department list after the 9/11 terrorist attacks merely for having a “Ben” name (“Ben” being too close to “Bin,” as in Osama bin Laden), I have been through that, including special searches in cubicles.
What Trump wants is what all authoritarians want: conformity. He’ll try and get it any way he can.
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Guess who is not affected by the DHS ruling? The very rich, who travel in private jets and often have special VIP concierge services, like screening and entry protocols, if they travel commercially. Those people are Trump’s real constituency, and they won’t care about this change.
For the rest of us, there is the partial comfort of DHS’s Mobile Passport application, or the private program Clear. Yet the suspension of Global Entry is not really about travel but about the erosion of principled government and the triumph of a politics of revenge.
To remedy that, we’ll all need to make our voices heard.