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Ruling Voided on Citizenship of Screeners

A judge had barred U.S. from allowing only American citizens in the airport jobs. Court says he should take change in law into account.

May 21, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Tuesday vacated an injunction issued by a Los Angeles judge that barred the U.S. government from enforcing a post-Sept. 11 law that permits only American citizens to work as airport screeners.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order sending back to U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi the lawsuit in which the American Civil Liberties Union asserted that the citizenship restriction in the Aviation Transportation and Security Act of 2001 is a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the laws.

After Takasugi issued his ruling in November, Congress amended the law by expanding eligibility for federal airport screening positions to "U.S. nationals."

This includes individuals from American Samoa, which has been an unincorporated U.S. territory since 1900, and U.S. trust territories such as the Northern Mariana Islands.

The 9th Circuit said Takasugi should reconsider the case because the law had been modified.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the agency is reviewing the order.

A spokesman for the Transportation Security Agency said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said he was not surprised at the ruling.

But he said he expected that Takasugi would issue another injunction after the case returns to him.

Rosenbaum emphasized that although the law was modified, it still bars lawful "permanent resident aliens" from working as airport screeners, and eight of the original nine plaintiffs in the suit fall into that category.

"It is un-American" for the U.S. to permit noncitizens "to give up their lives as soldiers in Iraq, while the president and Congress say they can't be trusted to inspect bags at the airport," Rosenbaum said.

"If people can give up their lives looking for weapons of mass destruction, they should be able to work at an airport screening device looking for weapons."

Rosenbaum said that five of the first 10 U.S. servicemen from California who were killed in the war in Iraq were noncitizens.

He also emphasized that there is no citizenship requirement to be a pilot, a flight attendant or baggage handler on a U.S. airline or to be a National Guardsman who stands near an airport weapons screening machine.

When Takasugi issued his ruling in November, he said that "improving aviation security is a compelling national interest."

However, he said, Justice Department attorneys had not demonstrated that "categorical exclusion of all noncitizens from employment as screeners is the least restrictive means" to achieve that interest.

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