The news that one of France’s leading intellectuals, Henry Rousso, was detained at a Houston airport for ten hours in late February by an “inexperienced” agent of the U.S. Customs and Border protection has predictably sent shockwaves around the country and abroad. Rousso’s lawyer in Houston, Jason Mills, saw the detention as “representative of a shift in how some border agents are approaching their jobs.” Now instead of working to admit people into the country—including high-ranking scholars, scientists, and intellectuals with legitimate visas—many border agents are “looking really hard for reasons to deny.”
The mess that led to Rousso’s detention was apparently based on the border agent’s ignorance of the law and about how universities around the world work. Foreign scholars and scientists are often invited to present their work at American institutions of higher learning, often with honoraria attached. Rousso, traveling on a B-2 or tourist visa, was eligible to receive an honorarium according to the “Honorarium Rule” of the U.S. Department of State. This essential and completely legal feature of academic exchange allows thousands of scholars to visit the U.S. each year and receive compensation for lecturing, consulting, or otherwise sharing knowledge. In Rousso’s case, no one seemed cognizant of this rule.
The scholar was fingerprinted, body-searched, and informed that he was about to be deported back to France as an illegal alien.
The irony, in this instance, couldn’t be greater. Henry Rousso is one of France’s pre-eminent scholars of the Holocaust and a leading historian of the Vichy period when France became a virtual puppet regime of the Nazis.
His work centers on how the legacy of the Vichy regime continues to haunt contemporary French culture, shadowing France’s sense of its present and its future.
The violent persecutions and nefarious collaborations that characterized life in France during World War II were not forgotten with the end of the war but continued to fester in the hearts and minds of survivors, their descendants, and postwar French society in general. Deep inside the French psyche, even to this day, lie the wounds leveled by the repressions of 1940-1944; it is, he famously writes, “a past that doesn’t pass” (“un passé qui ne passe pas”) Rousso’s entire body of work emphasizes the lasting price a society pays by turning against its own democratic, enlightened ideals in the name of nationalism, xenophobia, and racial resentment.
In the end, the details of Rousso’s personal case at border control are less important than the fact that we now have a prominent, outspoken intellectual with a personal experience of the deportation threat facing so many in the United States today.
Sitting for ten hours in the detention area, Rousso witnessed scenes of petty humiliation, fellow detainees shackled, chained at the waist, and led away in handcuffs.
He counts himself lucky—his case was finally resolved thanks to the intervention of Michael Young, the president of Texas A&M University—but he witnessed what was happening around him to those without lawyers, and he too feared being shackled and handcuffed. The “zeal” of the border agents, Rousso writes in his own account of the ordeal, was palpable and insidious: “I cannot stop thinking of all those who suffer these humiliations and legal violence without the protections I was able to benefit from.”
Americans should all be ashamed by what happened to Henry Rousso in Houston, and by what is happening to many other less educated, wealthy, or light-skinned people at airports across the country. We should be alarmed at the alacrity with which any foreigner is now deemed a threat or worse, an enemy. And we should feel concerned about what this new regime means for the free dissemination of research, knowledge, and scholarship around the globe.
But above all, we should see in this event a fleeting snapshot of our current moment and a warning sign about our future. Because the actions of the Customs and Border agent who detained Rousso give us just one more sobering look into who we are fast becoming as a nation.
Once proudly welcoming of immigrants—whether privileged or humble—we have become increasingly wary and mistrustful, suspicious of hidden motives, moved more by fear-stoked resentment than by empathy or generosity.
We are increasingly quick to judge, and to condemn: to forego the benefit of the doubt. Putting up literal and figurative walls has become the order of the day.
As Rousso’s writings make clear, our new national climate of mistrust and apprehension is not without cost. What he calls the “Vichy syndrome,” in which France betrayed its own foundational principles in the name of collaboration with the Nazis, took decades for that country to come to terms with. America is now seeing its own greatest democratic and egalitarian ideals challenged by both policy and practice. We are not becoming a fascist regime, but we lose something close to our core values of neutral openness every time we indulge in reflexive suspicion at our borders. “The United States,” Rousso wrote in the wake of his detention, “seems no longer quite the United States.”
Barbara Will is A and R. Newbury Professor of English and Associate Dean of the Arts & Humanities at Dartmouth College and a Public Voices Fellow.