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Bill Would Loosen Citizenship Rules for Airport Screeners

Congress: Senate panel approves the measure. Many experienced checkers are noncitizens.

September 20, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR and JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two powerful senators joined forces Thursday to win committee passage of an amendment that would ease the U.S. citizenship requirement for about 60,000 airport screener positions in the new Transportation Security Administration.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), would allow most current security screeners who are legal, permanent immigrants to apply for the new, better-paying TSA jobs. Honorably discharged military veterans who are not U.S. citizens would also be entitled to apply.

To be eligible, screeners would have had to be employed on or before Nov. 19, 2001, the date on which last year's sweeping aviation security bill was enacted. But passage of the amendment by the full Senate and the House would still be required before President Bush could sign the measure into law.

The move provides a glimmer of hope for thousands of screeners at California airports. Noncitizens, who constitute the majority of screeners at several large U.S. airports, account for 40% of the work force at Los Angeles International Airport and 80% at San Francisco International Airport, according to the Service Employees International Union.

Those employees--most of whom are minorities--will find themselves out of a job in the next few weeks if the measure does not pass. The issue is so important to lower-income California workers that the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Transportation on behalf of nine California screeners in January, seeking to block the requirement that airport security screeners be U.S. citizens.

"About 50,000 noncitizens are serving in the military. To say they can fight to protect national security but they can't work in airports as screeners seems unjust," said Ben Wizner, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. "The lead plaintiff in our lawsuit served for three years in the Army before she was honorably discharged. She's waiting for the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] to process her citizenship application. Under the law as it now stands, she would not be eligible to apply for one of the federal jobs."

Federal security officials at LAX have been working with noncitizen screeners to speed the citizenship process so they can apply for the federal jobs.

The airport's federal security director, David Stone, has said repeatedly that retaining these workers is crucial. About 1,200 screeners work at LAX for private companies; the TSA needs to hire 3,100 to meet federal requirements by the end of the year.

Hollings and McCain attached the provision to broader aviation security legislation as it was voted out of the Commerce Committee. That bill would extend for some airports a year-end deadline for screening checked bags for explosives, and would make improvements in cargo security.

The amendment was hailed as a hopeful sign by the SEIU, which represents thousands of screeners, that many of the country's most experienced screeners would be eligible to apply for federal positions.

"This bill is relatively noncontroversial," said a committee aide, who said its chances could be good if it can reach the floor before lawmakers go home to campaign.

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