Commercial airliners are not usually restful environments, but February 2017 was a particularly fraught time for domestic air passengers. Donald Trump had become president a month earlier and had quickly issued his “travel ban” executive order, sparking chaos at the nation’s airports. Although on February 3 a federal district judge enjoined the ban, by February 21 White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was telling a press briefing that “the President want[s] to take the shackles off individuals in [immigration agencies].” The very next day, Customs and Border Protection agents met Delta Airlines flight 1583 at the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The agents, and the Delta cabin crew, told the passengers that to exit, they would have to show government-issued ID.
There’s nothing unusual about being asked to show ID before getting on a plane, of course, and it is routine for CBP officers to look at documents when passengers arrive in the U.S. from abroad. But 1583 had originated in San Francisco. At no point did it land on foreign soil or fly over foreign airspace. It was an ordinary domestic flight. CBP was demanding ID before allowing passengers to get off the plane.
The agents were armed and wearing body armor. They blocked the exit. One passenger, the Georgetown University sociology professor Corey Fields, told me recently that the agents “weren’t rude or aggressive or intrusive in terms of the micro-interactions. But there was this sort of implied authority—nothing about it felt voluntary.”