Citizenship Requirement for Airport Screeners Will Not Improve Our Security

January 17, 2002 12:00 am

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Statement of Mark D. Rosenbaum
Legal Director, ACLU of Southern CaliforniaFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

LOS ANGELES–The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Service Employees International Union, together with the National, Northern California and San Diego offices of the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, have this morning filed a federal civil rights suit in District Court in Los Angeles, seeking to enjoin the citizenship requirement of the recently enacted Aviation and Transportation Security Act.

Pursuant to this Act, lawful permanent residents of all nationalities who are currently employed as airport screeners – – many of whom are in the process of becoming naturalized citizens and have perfect personnel records – – will be summarily fired from their jobs and barred from reapplying as screeners, presumptively treated as security risks by virtue of their lawful non-citizenship status.

We are a nation of immigrants, not immigrant bashers. Even in times of war, it is our heritage and mission that we do not stigmatize lawful non-citizens in our midst as undesirables, stereotyping them by citizenship status alone as dangerous, disloyal, criminal, or terrorist. It is an unwarranted response to the horrific tragedy of September 11, borne unfortunately of the same xenophobic mentality that resulted in the World War II internment of non-citizens and American citizens of Japanese descent, that women and men who have performed their jobs as screeners in exemplary fashion, for up to ten years in some cases, will be deprived of their livelihoods.

Who are these women and men? At LAX and SFO alone, they come from Fiji, the Philippines, China, Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ethiopia. All are lawfully in the United States. Most are lawful permanent residents. Many are in the process of applying to become naturalized citizens. Some are even United States nationals who carry U.S. passports, elect observers to the U.S. Congress, and are citizens of no other nation. Some are veterans of our armed forces, which have no citizenship requirement. Others have children in our military.

Congress does not improve airline security by branding these women and men as security risks because they are not citizens. Of course, non-citizens may be loyal patriots, too. Lawful permanent residents are required by law to register for the draft. Non-citizens may serve in the National Guard, whose members now perform security duties at screening stations side-by-side with non-citizen screeners whose employment is to be terminated by the new law. In airports, thousands of employees have direct and unsupervised access to aircraft, luggage, and even airfields without requirement of citizenship: pilots, baggage handlers, flight attendants, cargo loaders, mechanics, guards, and plane cleaners among them.

The vulnerability of our aviation security was well known before September 11. As senseless as it is discriminatory and demeaning, the citizenship requirement for screeners is an illusory diversion from needed reforms to correct inadequate background checks, low pay, and poor training. We support those reforms, and every one of the screeners here today would gladly submit to more rigorous background checks, improved training, and any other measures reasonably related to improving security. But while numerous government reports dating back over 20 years have repeatedly called for changes to airline security procedures, none has ever identified citizenship or the nationality of screeners as a security issue.

The citizenship requirement will not improve our security; it will harm it, by removing experienced and skilled screeners from our airports, screeners who are committed keeping air travelers safe. It is a knee-jerk response to a problem that requires serious deliberation, not a discriminatory quick-fix. And it inflicts needless suffering and humiliation upon good men and women among us.

We go to court today not to oppose aviation security reform, but to demand real reform instead of short-sighted scapegoating. We go to court to prevent another stain upon our nation’s history.

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