The good news: In one of the first tests of US rules purporting to forbid US citizens from crossing US borders without first obtaining US passports (issued at the government’s apparently standardless discretion), the US Department of State issued “one-time waivers” authorizing the “Iroquois Nationals” lacrosse team to leave the US (and presumably to return, although that’s not entirely clear from news reports) without carrying US passports.
The dispute arose because some Iroquois, like other Native Americans, have for many years used passports issued by their own tribes or nations. Whether those passports were “passports” within the meaning of US law was largely irrelevant as long as passports were merely a convenience, not a requirement, for international travel. Lacrosse was an Iroquois invention (for an introduction to the sport, see John McPhee’s essay last year in the New Yorker, “Spin Right and Shoot Left”, included in his latest anthology, “Silk Parachute”), and travel on Iroquois passports was and is especially significant for the Iroquois Nationals team, who compete on behalf of their own nation in international lacrosse tournaments.
While it was framed as a dispute over the sovereignty of the iroquois Confederations and/or the validity of Iroquois-issued passports, the US appears to have seen it purely as a question of whether native Americans who are also US citizens may leave or return to the US without US passports.
At first, the US had threatened to prevent the team from boarding flights to the UK for the international lacrosse championships. But without admitting either the “validity” of Iroquois passports (i.e. not whether they are genuine but whether they satisfy US requirement for exit or entry permits), or the invalidity of the passport requirements for US citizens, the US effectively backed down by granting the team “waivers” and, more importantly, saying that they would not interfere with their departure from the US.
This continues the pattern we have sen to date: We have yet to hear of a case in which the US government has actually prevented a US citizen from leaving or returning to the country on the basis of their not having, or declining to carry or display, a US passport. In every incident that has been brought to our attention, the US government has eventually indicated its willingness to stand aside from interference with departure from or return to the country without passports — although travel has sometimes been frustrated in other ways, such as refusal to give airlines permission to transport them. Presumably, the US government realizes that preventing its own citizens form leaving or returning to the country would be such a flagrant violation of international human rights law as to lead to diplomatic complications, even if it would be difficult to challenge on those grounds in US courts.
The bad news: After finally obtaining “permission” to leave the US without US passports, the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was denied visas by the UK — not on the grounds that their passports were invalid, or weren’t issued by a sovereign entity, but on the grounds that their passports don’t contain ICAO-standard “security” features required by the UK for visitors from the US. It is, again, unclear from news reports what absent “features” were at issue, but they might have included machine-readability (OCR or RFID) or other aspects of formatting or data content.