The American Civil Liberties Union and a major labor union sued the Department of Transportation on Thursday seeking to block a post-Sept. 11 federal requirement that airport security screeners be U.S. citizens.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on behalf of nine California screeners, argues that the citizenship requirement is "irrational" and actually could weaken airport security by removing thousands of experienced employees from the system.
The change is set to be phased in over the next 10 months, with all screeners to be citizens and federal employees by Nov. 19.
An estimated 25% of the 28,000 pre-boarding screeners at the nation's airports are not citizens but legal permanent residents. At some airports, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Miami and Dulles in Washington, noncitizens account for a majority of the work force. About 40% of the screeners at Los Angeles International Airport are noncitizens.
The suit notes that no such requirement exists for airline pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers or for the National Guard troops now stationed at airports to beef up security.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include a U.S. Army veteran and several screeners who have received commendations for their work. "I was deeply hurt when I heard about this law, because it cuts across the very fabric of what makes America great and special," said Vicente Crisologo, a screener at San Francisco International Airport who came to the United States from the Philippines three years ago.
One of three named plaintiffs who spoke at a news conference Thursday at ACLU offices in Los Angeles, Crisologo came close to tears as he decried the "unfair and discriminatory" requirement.
Jim Mitchell, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, said he could not comment on the lawsuit, which he had not yet seen. However, he noted that the citizenship requirement was explicitly written into the new airport security law that passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support.
He said the department is working with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to speed up processing for screeners who have already applied for citizenship.
Officials of the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 2,000 airport screeners and is a party in the lawsuit, said many screeners can't apply for citizenship because they have not been in the country for five years.
The lawsuit contends that the requirement violates constitutional guarantees of due process because it discriminates against a class of people for no rational reason.
Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said he hoped the lawsuit would prompt Congress to strike the citizenship requirement. "This matter ought not to go to court," he said.
It is not clear who would propose such a bill and how much support it would have in a Congress that has been eager to show itself to be strong on security. However, there are several outspoken critics of the citizenship requirement.
The provision "does nothing to enhance security, and it is going to eliminate some competent and totally trustworthy people," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills). "I could see a compromise that talked about allowing permanent resident aliens who are working now in this area and who are otherwise qualified under the new system to keep their jobs."
Mitchell of the DOT said U.S. citizenship is just one of many stringent qualifications for future screeners. They also must have high levels of written and verbal English proficiency, visual and oral acuity, and an ability to respond to alarms in noisy and chaotic circumstances. Screeners will have 40 hours of classroom instruction and 60 hours of practical experience before taking on an assignment, he said.
He said pay for trainees will start in the mid-$20,000s and salaries probably will average in the mid-$30,000s, far higher that current rates.
"We are creating a career force of federal transportation security personnel, a group that has esprit de corps like any uniformed force."
Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this report.