In evaluating the plight of Baxter Reid, an Australian who spent 16 days in a Batavia jail for overstaying his visitors visa by 90 minutes, it’s best to consider an expert, that being the estimable Mr. Bumble, a confection produced by the fertile mind of Charles Dickens and appearing in 1838’s “Oliver Twist.”
Bumble, told by a judge that the law supposes that his domineering wife “acts under your direction,” memorably responded that “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass – a idiot.” In Western New York, the law and, more specifically, its application, was similarly indisposed when it cast Reid into the Federal Detention Center in Batavia for the extraordinarily minor offense he committed.
Reid, it is fair to say, was not operating entirely on the side of common sense either. Here’s how it played out:
The Australian has a visa that allows him to stay in the United States for five years, but in increments. About every six months, he must leave the country for a period. That’s what he was doing in late April when he and a friend were on their way to Canada from New York City. On the way, their car broke down, and by the time Canadian authorities turned them back at the Peace Bridge crossing, Reid had overstayed his visa.
For that, Reid, who has no criminal record, was thrown into jail for two weeks. And guess who paid the freight for that overheated and, yes, asinine decision? Right. Taxpayers forked over thousands of dollars because the law equates a 90-minute accident with intent to commit mayhem.
Yes, Reid, who is 26, should have known better than to wait until the last minute to meet his obligation. He should have known that, even before President Trump was elected, border considerations had changed, and he certainly should have known that, with the current focus on the border and immigration, the consequences of failure could be extreme. He was asking for trouble.
But, here’s the thing: Trouble didn’t have to respond. It is surely possible for the law to take into account the severity of an infraction. What would be wrong with issuing a formal warning upon a first, minor offense to a visitor with a clean record? Note the advisory in the visa-holder’s file so that any subsequent infraction is identified as a second bite into a now-rotten apple.
We don’t need to be throwing people into the clink for silly stuff. Yes, we need to be aware of who is in the country at what time and to maintain control of the border. But we can also be smart about it. We can take account of circumstances and act with common sense.
Upon his release from jail last week, Reid was ordered to leave the country within 120 days. Paging Mr. Bumble.