In black and white photos and crackly films shot through with static, a classic image of the United States at the turn of the last century emerges: a near constant rush of immigrants, most destined to pass through Ellis Island. There they were given a cursory disease check, questioned, and in most cases, allowed to proceed on their journeys inward. This was easy enough to do without a global standard for identifying documents. Now, as immigration policy takes center stage worldwide, it’s hard to imagine just how they got through without them.
With their microchips and holograms, biometric photos and barcodes, today’s passports can seem like stunning feats of modern technology, especially when considering their origins can be traced back to the biblical era. Centuries ago, the sauf conduit or safe conduct pass was designed to grant an enemy “passage in and out of a kingdom for the purpose of his negotiations,” explains historian Martin Lloyd in The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document. This was little more than written plea that acted as a type of gentleman’s agreement: that two rulers recognized each other’s authority, and stepping over a border would not cause a war.
Of course, it’s not too easy to enforce the rules when there’s no agreement on them. This all changed in 1920, when the idea of a worldwide passport standard emerged in the aftermath of the First World War, championed by the League of Nations, a body tasked with the heavy burden of maintaining peace. A year later, perhaps recognizing a political opportunity, the U.S. passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and later, the Immigration Act of 1924 limiting the inflow of immigrants. The emergency? Too many newcomers from countries deemed a threat to “the ideal of American hegemony.” How to identify an immigrant’s country of origin? By a newly minted passport, of course.
Cooked up by a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world, the passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others. “A passport is a kind of shield: when you're a citizen of a wealthy democracy,” explains Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. A Canadian-born Swiss citizen of Iranian parentage, Abrahamian puzzles over the construct of citizenship, “I don't have a particularly strong emotional attachment to any of my passports; I see them as accidents of birth and I wouldn't identify as any nationality if I didn't have to.”
Like Abrahamian, critics of the 1920 resolution argued it was less about creating a more democratic society of world travelers than it was about control, even within a country’s own borders. In the early 20th century, married American women were literally a footnote in their husbands’ passports, reports Atlas Obscura. They were unable to cross a border alone, though married men were of course free to roam.
Some nations foresaw the darker implications of the passport and spoke out against what they saw as Western dominance, Mark Salter explains in Rights of Passage: The Passport in International Relations. “Although many countries wished to dispose of the passport, because a few countries would not give up the passport—in fact, no country could afford to give up the passport.” This catch 22—along with a heavy dose of angst—would make sly, quiet appearances in 20th-century travel literature, including works by Paul Bowles and Joan Didion. No one, it seemed, much liked the idea of being labeled, packaged, and dehumanized within a passport’s pages, but no one could get around without one.
In recent years, passports have faced a distinctly 21st-century identity crisis, becoming a highly sought after commodity, like real estate and fine art. In addition to a black market of stolen and fake passports, some countries have willingly opened up their borders to the highest bidder. “When I discovered [during my research] that there was a whole legal market for passports, it validated my feeling that citizenship was a pretty arbitrary thing,” Abrahamian notes. For example, countries like Malta and Cyprus essentially sell citizenship—the former for over $1 million, the latter for significant investments.
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Beyond the one percent, a shifting global landscape of new states, changing borders, and discriminatory ethnic policies has further reinforced statelessness: those who do not belong to a nationality of any country. At least 10 million people around the world are stateless, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These people are often denied passports, and consequently, freedom of movement. These extremes again illustrate how murky our notions of citizenship really are.
Today, U.S. State Department statistics report 18.6 million passports issued in 2016–the highest annual number on record. The popular online search tool Passport Index offers up ways of comparing passports via interactive tools reminiscent of fantasy football scoreboards. Magazines like Travel & Leisure breathlessly announce the winners of “best” and “worst” passport rankings every year. As other nations join the new U.S. administration in toying with the idea of closed borders, it is worth meditating once again on the passport’s essential arbitrariness.
Depending on our country of origin, a passport may grant us extreme privilege or extreme distress. It may be a sheltering sky or a burden to bear. The passport isn’t going anywhere, but the carefully thought-out precautions meant to shape it over a period of decades into a near-perfect document must now evolve as our world changes. So what will it look like next?