"Papers, Please"

Great essay from 1990 by Bill Holm:

No papers, no pay. It’s an interesting equation, and I think it has not surfaced before in Minnesota. Neither of my Icelandic grandfathers, for instance, had papers enough to work in Marshall, and if you’re an old Minnesotan, it’s unlikely that your grandfathers did, either. Viking wetbacks, they were.

Though Section 1324A, Title 8, of the U. S. Immigration Code was passed by Congress during my nonnewspaper-reading absence in central China, it doesn’t take much thinking to figure out its rationale: it is intended, to use the vulgar cliché, to “stem the flood” of illegal Mexican labor. It also doesn’t take much intelligence to figure out that if you’re a Mexican laborer in southern California and know you have to sign this silly form, you will promptly dummy up an “original” Social Security card and a driver’s license or birth certificate. Meanwhile, imagine Enrique Lopez, whose family has been in California since before Plymouth Rock, being abused by an officious bureaucrat because, like the rest of us, his “original” Social Security card disappeared down his Maytag twenty-five years ago. Visualize this. And then visualize the Senate debate on this legislation. As Mark Twain said, the true native American criminal class must certainly be Congress, and its behavior in this case is a nice mixture of hypocrisy, cowardice and thoughtlessness.

A friend, after hearing me in high dudgeon and confessing that he had himself signed such a form with silent misgivings, suggested that I might be more sensitive to such issues because of my recent return from China. If this is true, it is a harsh and sad comment both about me and about American citizens generally. If we have to spend a year in an authoritarian country producing papers on demand before we become sensitized to the moral and political dangers of Section 1324A, then we are already a nation of slaves, passive and agreeable, ready for Orwell’s eternal “boot in the human face.”

I’m curious what he’s thinking today.

Posted on April 3, 2007 at 7:40 AM31 Comments


A.Person from the UK April 3, 2007 8:35 AM

I realised the USA was not a free country when I was told by someone they had to produce some photo ID to buy a train ticket (Long Beach, CA). Apparently saying ‘I’m English and have not carried an identity card since WWII’ did not work.

supersnail April 3, 2007 8:51 AM

It seems the problem is we don’t trust our governments.
Or to be more accurate we have judged our governments to be untrustworthy.

This would seem to be a problem in most western democracies.
In theory we have a democratic process whereby we can choose a government which represents the broad views of the population.
In practice the reality of party machinery, campaign contributions and media manipulation means we get to choose from a variety of faceless party apparatchiks, double talking two faced weasels, and, plausible liars.

We need to get back to a situation where we can trust our governments, which mean fixing democracy.
Something which I have no idea how to do!

I could point to a couple of examples where democracy appears to be working (one actually – Switzerland! — But the Swiss model is very authoritarian and would not be to American tastes).

Maybe we should just forget about governments all together; this would probably result in lots of people carrying guns around all the time — same as now really but they wouldnt be called policemen anymore.

bobechs April 3, 2007 9:01 AM

Odd that all the things that he missed in China; cheese, Chevrolets, etc., are now widely available there.

Not so odd that what he found missing here is ever further out of reach.

nostromo April 3, 2007 9:07 AM

On the other hand … the reason it wasn’t necessary to demand evidence of identity in the past is that fewer people travelled. The reason that there aren’t 300 million immigrants from India and Bangladesh in the USA today is partly that most Indians and Bangladeshis can’t easily travel to the USA – they can’t afford the fare, or can’t get tourist visas, or both – and partly that the immigration laws are somewhat enforced by bureaucrats demanding ID as described in the article. If you think you’ve encountered bureaucratic obstacles, talk to an Indian about what it took to get a US visa.
Do you want the population of the USA to be 4 times what it is today – with a mix something like 40% from the Indian subcontinent, 40% from China, and the remaining 20% the current population? Then you may consistently claim to be in favor of eliminating bureaucracy. If you don’t want that, then you have to accept bureaucrats demanding papers. You can hide from it by having laws that usually apply to somebody other than you, but only at the cost of imposing a greater burden on somebody else.

Kees April 3, 2007 9:14 AM

@supersnail “fixing democracy. Something which I have no idea how to do!”

1) Abolish Govt.
2) Have new elections; previously elected officials cannot stand. Voting is compulsary.
3) Write new constitution with sunset clause; have new constitution written every x years.
4) make compulsary every law passed has similar sunset clause.
5) go to 1 every x years

Will it work? I don’t know, but the present system doesn’t work either so why not experiment? After all, the USA was supposed to be ‘the greatest social experiment ever’…

Michael Ash April 3, 2007 9:17 AM


“We need to get back to a situation where we can trust our governments, which mean fixing democracy.”

Government can never be trusted, so I don’t think this is the right way to do things. What we need is to take power back from the government until they have only what they need to do their job and no more, so they can still be evil crooks but they can’t screw things up too badly anymore.

The trouble with things right now is that any time something goes wrong, the reaction is to pass another law to fix it. This goes for people both in and out of government.

Kees April 3, 2007 9:18 AM

@ nostromo “a mix something like 40% from the Indian subcontinent, 40% from China, and the remaining 20% the current population”

What’s wrong with that mix? It represents the average world population more than the present mix in the USA. Maybe with a different mix you’d get different politcs.

CG April 3, 2007 9:27 AM


We need to get back to a situation where we can trust our governments, which mean fixing democracy.

The issue is not so much that we don’t trust our governments, but we don’t want to be put in a position where we have to trust the government. Government should always be a system of checks and balances.

The DoD definition of a ‘trusted computer’ is a computer that can breach your security policy. The same goes for a ‘trusted government’.

Anonymous April 3, 2007 9:30 AM


You are making the incorrect assumption that 300 millions indians want to live in America. Most people are happy where they are. They ones that want to travel have a lot of countries to choose from.

This perception that the whole planet wants to live in the USA is wrong. Some of us activly avoid even conecting flights though US teritory.

Chris S April 3, 2007 9:55 AM

“I’m curious what he’s thinking today.”

Bruce – if you’re curious, then ask him.


Interestingly, he lives part of the year in Iceland. That should provide an interesting perspective on travelling today.

From his About page…

“He is working on a new prose book: The Windows of Brimnes, a long essay on what the United States and the last forty years of his own life look like when viewed from the windows of his house just south of the Arctic Circle. The view is not cheerful these days.”

David Sparkes April 3, 2007 10:40 AM

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it always to be kept alive.”
Thomas Jefferson

mark April 3, 2007 10:52 AM

Anyone have a handy reference to which Walt Whitman poem he is referencing at the end of his essay? I vaguely remember reading that poem years ago…

mark April 3, 2007 11:01 AM

Of course once I looked I found it – duh. Book 1 inscriptions, “To the States.” Though over time it has had other titles (as is the case with Whitman). I like the other title: “Caution” from “Songs of Insurrection.”

Alan April 3, 2007 11:36 AM

“We need to get back to a situation where we can trust our governments, which mean fixing democracy.
Something which I have no idea how to do!”

A little rebellion now and then a good thing –Thomas Jefferson

VeGa April 3, 2007 12:31 PM

All countries break. The healthy ones have revolutions and restructure their government. The unhealthy ones become a monster authoritarian presence and eventually devour themselves from the inside into extinction ( think Rome).

You know it’s bad when the bees don’t even want to be here anymore.

Albatross April 3, 2007 12:57 PM

We need to stop being abject cowards, and we need to stop being led by fearmongers. Everytime the President justifies yet another infringement upon our rights by threatening us with terrorists, we need to say “So what, I’m not afraid.” Statistically we are more likely to die in our bathrooms than from a terrorist attack, so let’s stop allowing the Bush Administration to inculcate fear in the population.

kiwano April 3, 2007 2:58 PM


perhaps ridiculous parties in the vein of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party need to resurface in the public eye; eg. with a campaign platform that involves waging a War On Soap, as more Americans are killed by slipping on soap in the bathtub than by terrorists. Naturally, since anyone can simply make soap from lye and fat, it would also be necessary for the success of this war to ban (or at least heavily regulate) all purchases of fats and oils, or products containing the same; as a side benefit, this would also elminate most fast food, and help correct the obesity epidemic!

Slippy April 3, 2007 5:09 PM


Or get the Administration to protect us in our bathrooms. Now I’m afraid to go in. What’s in there?

Anonymous April 3, 2007 5:50 PM

What’s wrong with that mix? It represents the average world population more than the present mix in the USA. Maybe with a different mix you’d get different politcs.

Posted by: Kees


And they are both 3rd world countries. Having such a mix here in the US would result in the US itself becoming a 3rd world country.

Kinenveu April 4, 2007 3:40 AM

“Having such a mix here in the US would result in the US itself becoming a 3rd world country.”

In other words, the USA is a first-world country only because its inhabitants are mainly white.
What a racist POV !

Anonymous April 4, 2007 11:54 AM

While the threat of rebellion to keep the government in check has some value, an actual rebellion in the US would be a distaster.
The economic effects of an armed rebellion are going to be a lot more significant today than they were in Jefferson’s time.
Also Jefferson’s rebellion was very fortunate to have Washington leading them. Most rebellions today, exchange one authoritarian for another. It is very unlikely the US would end up with a better government than what it has today, after a successful armed rebellion.

guvn'r April 4, 2007 12:03 PM

I feel sorry for all the posters who live in such an undesirable society, and glad that I live in the good ole US of A. I trust my gummint, it’s consistent and predictable even when I don’t particularly like it. I’m free, as long as I accept responsibility for the consequences of my actions (what a concept eh?). I’d like to be less mindful of how other folks will react to my act but face it, many of those who demand freedom for themselves are inconsiderate of others in how they express it and equally intolerant of those who express it differently. It’s not perfect, but there’s a reason so many outsiders want into the USA! If you don’t like it, move to Chechnya or Tehran or Beijing or …

greg April 5, 2007 4:41 AM


Most contries are just as free as the US. And most people are very happy where they are or immigrate to a country thats not the US. (Like myself–well imigrate is a bit strong). Get over yourself. There are more than 6,000,000,000 people in the world and a very small fraction want to live in the USA, and most that do are just closer to the states (aka Mexico)

Doctor Bonkers April 5, 2007 9:06 AM

I find it very disconcerting that there is a limit to how many physical replacement Social Security one can have over the course of a lifetime. If the government wants to do that, at least do the populace a favour and print the cards on something that will survive being caught in the rain or washing machine. What happens when a person reaches their limit of replacement cards?

Doctor Bonkers April 5, 2007 9:16 AM

Speaking of, “produce your papers please”: My 86 year old father, a WWII army veteran, wanted to sight see in Canada from the US but was not able to cross over since he does not have a birth certificate or passport. Over the course of 86 years, his birth certificate has not only disappeared from the house but from New York City where he was born (there was a fire according to a city clerk and many records from 1919 were lost). He has a Social Security card, a Baptismal Certificate, and a State Driver’s license, but never had a passport. The US Army cannot find his discharge papers. In other words, except for the Catholic Church, IRS, and SSA, my father doesn’t exist anymore. How many more people will be trapped in this kind of Catch-22 as your papers migrate from one medium to another. What happens to a person in the near future when you cannot produce your papers? If he was a younger man and needed to renew his driver’s license, he could not renew due to the ID points system.

N4NLN April 7, 2007 7:53 AM

John Gilmore, back when he was at Sun, inserted an ascii string into the SUN BootRom. It went undetected for quite a while, but when a certain government site in suburban Maryland was considering a purchase, they dumped the ROM code to inspect it. They went ballistic when they found this:

   Love your country
   but don't trust your government.

A brilliantly-conceived hack if there ever was one.


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