It would take a rock-hard heart not to be moved by the plight of the Iroquois national lacrosse team, which has been frustrated in its efforts to attend the world championships in England. The team’s members hoped to travel on passports issued by their tribal government, but the British have refused to recognize the documents—despite the State Department’s written assurance that the athletes will, indeed, be let back into the United States.
Though we sympathize with the Iroquois, they really shouldn’t have been surprised by the treatment they’ve received. The State Department has long warned tribal passport holders that they travel abroad at their own risk, and that the American government is hesitant to do anything on their behalf should they be denied entry into a foreign country. In fact, the United States appears to consider tribal passports roughly on par with those issued by the notorious World Service Authority, which has been ginning up worthless travel documents for decades. We have to wonder if the Iroquois authorities were well-aware of this fact before attempting to send its lacrosse team to England—a planned test of the legal viability of the government’s passports, perhaps?
The other possible explanation is that the Iroquois were simply ignorant of their passports’ generally unwelcome nature the world over. If so, that ignorance might stem from the fact that certain tribal members have the right to cross an international border at will: the U.S.-Canada border, the immigration policies of which continue to be affected by the Jay Treaty of 1794:
Nothing in this title shall be construed to affect the right of American Indians born in Canada to pass the borders of the United States, but such right shall extend only to persons who possess at least 50 per centum of blood of the American Indian race.
Our own take is that the Iroquois may have a legal argument for the validity of tribal passports, but that they will find it difficult to press those claims in international forums as long as their documents lack biometrics. In this security climate, governments are understandably skittish about setting precedents in which they accept passports that are partially handwritten.