Papers, Please

Papers, Please

Mary Frances
Photos by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

Published February 4, 2017

“We clump ourselves into a group with other people who look, talk, and think like us because we feel safe there. Throw in someone from another tribe, and we are in uncharted territory, and our prejudice seed blossoms.”

If you are a foreigner in Iceland, a new modification to Icelandic law requires you to carry a passport or legal identification with you at all times, unless you are Nordic. It also states that police can search the home of anyone they suspect might be swindling immigration officials. As an immigrant to Iceland myself, I see this law as at best overreaching, and at worst flat-out racist.

I know that’s a big pile of shit to sling at somebody, so let me explain, starting with the “Nordic” exception part. I don’t want to carry my passport around in my purse, but I recognize that I am unlikely to be stopped because I am a white lady, and I look more “Nordic” than some native Icelanders I know. So who is this law intended to target? Maybe other-than-Nordic-looking people?

Fear of the Other

I don’t have any personal negative experience with the police to fuel distrust. I know human beings, though, and suspicion is subjective. Every person on earth has a little prejudice seed buried deep inside our heart. You have one, and so do I. It’s not our fault, it is just how culture shapes us. Chalk it up to basic tribal instincts. We clump ourselves into a group with other people who look, talk, and think like us because we feel safe there. Throw in someone from another tribe, and we are in uncharted territory, and our prejudice seed blossoms. When left unchecked, the prejudice plant consumes us and turns otherwise perfectly nice people into racists. It is our responsibility to crush the prejudice weed before it turns us into nasty monsters. Policies like this one, however, are water, sunlight, and fertilizer for our little budding prejudices.

We always find people different from us suspicious. I once explained my co-parenting agreement after divorce to a colleague from Bangladesh. He listened politely, and then he told me that from his point of view, the whole arrangement seemed “artificial.” This man, who had been in an arranged marriage for 40 years, thought my setup was strange beyond belief. Honestly, I thought the same about his life. Authorities in Iceland have landed in hot water in the past for accusing foreign couples of faking their marriage. Now, they can enter your home on a whim.

Who’s really wrecking the system?

This law is unkind and unnecessary. It is based in irrational fear. I imagine the people who designed it are afraid of a flood of immigrants coming to Iceland and mooching off the welfare state. Pretty please, guys, solve an actual problem. If there is a rush of foreigners coming here to steal pensions or bankrupt the healthcare system, I see no evidence. Recent studies show that we need more immigrants in Iceland. All the immigrants I have met in my near decade of living in Iceland moved here because it is a peaceful place to build a life. We work, and pay taxes, and contribute to society.

If you are looking for a worthy direction in which to point a finger of blame when it comes to robbing the state, don’t scapegoat immigrants who are coming here to make a better life. Maybe you should start with tax evaders instead. Maybe the newly elected Prime Minister, or the other roughly 170 other wealthy Icelanders who were named in the Panama Papers.


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