A federal judge hands nine workers an unexpected victory in their battle against a law requiring citizenship for all airport screeners.
Now, here's what the deal's supposed to be: In exchange for greater
security you give up certain rights.
The USA Patriot Act was passed with much fanfare last October, but it was soon clear that lawmakers passed the package without examining all the parts.
Admiral James Loy, the nation's top aviation security official, confirmed at an August 22 press conference what thousands of immigrant airport screeners have dreaded for nearly a year. Loy promised that the Transportation Security Administration would without question meet the Congressionally mandated deadline to replace America's 30,000-member screener force with government-trained federal employees.
For Loy to accomplish this task, the TSA must remove an estimated 8,000 immigrant screeners from security checkpoints by November 19 because they fail to meet the new citizenship requirement. "The law of the land is the law of the land," Loy replied, when asked how the TSA justifies the impending shakeout at a time when the agency is scrambling to train and place an additional 16,000 employees at airports nationwide over the next eleven weeks.
Indeed, Loy is merely obeying the demands of Congress. Signed into law following a post-September 11 flurry, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act created the TSA and charged the agency with placing airport security under federal jurisdiction. Section 111 of the ATSA requires US citizenship for all screeners, which sets the absurd precedent that immigrants can join the military (no citizenship required) but not scan sneakers at airline security posts.
Both the TSA and members of Congress offer careful replies when it comes to explaining the reasons for the citizenship requirement. An aide for Senator John McCain, one of the ATSA's main proponents, did not want to comment on the provision's rationale. The Justice Department, however, came close to touching on the truth in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of nine screeners trying to keep their jobs. "It bears repeating that the ATSA was passed in the aftermath of an attack on the US by non-citizens, who penetrated the US aviation system," the motion stated.
The case, Gebin v. Mineta, names Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and his former No. 2, John Magaw (who was replaced by Loy), as the defendants. Federal Judge Robert Takasugi promised a decision on the case in early June but still has not issued a ruling.
All nine plaintiffs are noncitizens, lawfully living in the country as permanent residents. The lead plaintiff, Jeimy Gebin, believes that her three years in the US Army should be enough to allow her to stay employed at Los Angeles International Airport. Erlinda Valencia, a leader of the San Francisco airport's screening force, is another plaintiff. Two years ago Valencia's security firm honored her when she detected a toy hand grenade and two weeks later, a loaded handgun. But federal attorneys argue that the government can do as it pleases with its "alien guests," and that Congress acted rationally when, in the interest of airport security, it required screeners to formalize
their "loyalty" and "commitment" through citizenship.
The situation between the government and immigrant screeners begs the comparison of Japanese-Americans who were fired from their jobs after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and were then herded into internment camps. Ironically, Secretary Mineta and Judge Takasugi were among those interned.
In addition to being unfair to immigrants, dismantling experienced screening units at the nation's 429 commercial airports could itself be a major security risk. By the November deadline, 80 percent of San Francisco International Airport's 915 screeners will be forced out of their jobs because they are not citizens. Washington-Dulles will also lose 80 percent of its existing force;
Los Angeles International Airport will lose 40 percent; and Miami
International Airport will lose 70 percent. Even worse, their replacements
are being whisked through the training process: one new screener working at the Norfolk, Virginia, International Airport told Alan Gathright of the San Francisco Chronicle that he received only fifteen minutes of explosive detection training. There is also the matter of how the remaining 40,500 screeners waiting to be hired will complete the federally mandated 100 hours of classroom and onsite instruction before they begin work in late November.
While it is true that most federal employees and civil servants must be US citizens, screeners arrived on the job without this requirement; and the ATSA does not "grandfather" exemplary workers into the applicant pool for a federal screening position. "I am a legal immigrant. Now they are trying to make me a second-grade citizen," said Ashok Malakar, a San Francisco screener who is only a year from naturalization. "That is discrimination."
A camera system in the nation's capital is making civil libertarians
We have reached the point that the idea of liberty, an idea relatively recent and new, is already in the process of fading from our consciences and our standards of morality, the point that neoliberal globalization is in the process of assuming its opposite: that of a global police state, of a terror of security. Deregulation has ended in maximum security, in a level of restriction and constraint equivalent to that found in fundamentalist societies.--Jean Baudrillard, "L'Esprit du Terrorisme,"
reprinted in Harper's Magazine, February 2002
Sorry to have missed my column deadline. I got delayed at the airport. I was intending to write about the progress of the war on war. I wanted to write about how similar are the wars of words being used in the war on terrorism, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy and the war on hunger. I had intended to explore the ramifications of terms like "axis of evil," "triumvirate of terror," "parasites" and the concept of "taking no prisoners" (just detainees).
If I hadn't been delayed, I meant to talk about the war stories we're telling ourselves. That the Geneva Conventions aren't such a big thing. There's just no time for Miranda rights. Civil rights are just not needed. Got to break a few rules to enforce the law.
I was thinking that maybe I am just behind the times. While I wasn't looking, we moved on to less law, more New World Order. It's sort of a military order, as it turns out. It's a religious order too, what with our taxes becoming tithes for Faith Based Initiatives, Soldiers of Fortune and born-again Armies of Compassion.
But order it is, and you've got to admit, an ordered society is a nice and tidy one. Enemies are secretly and sanitarily disposed of. The media are controlled to provide only uplifting images of clean conquest and happy, grateful multitudes. Noisy protesters are swept into neat piles, like leaves. The government encourages village snoops and urban gossips to volunteer their infinite time and darkest thoughts as a way of keeping the rest of us in line. And I don't know much about Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, but you've got to say this for him: that bias-cut green silk tunic worn over relaxed-fit, wool/linen blend trousers has become "le must" of the fashion world. No wonder Bush is up for that Nobel Peace Prize.
Anyway, that's what I was going to write about, but I didn't have time because I had to take a flight to Philadelphia and I was late because the old man who lives on the next block put his head in my car window as I was about to drive off and he wouldn't remove it while he told me all about how he's our new neighborhood volunteer-for-victory monitor or some such, and he wanted to take an inventory right there and then of any supplies I might have in my house that would be useful in case of national emergency. Any gas masks? Generators? Cell phones? Cudgels? Axes? Prescription drugs?
"Band-Aids," I offered politely. "And could we possibly do this another time?"
"How many people live in your house?" he persisted. "And didn't I see you pushing a baby carriage the other day?"
"Not in many years," I say.
"But I'm sure it was you," he pressed. At that instant I was visited by a very clear image of him on the witness stand. He is white-haired and gentle-eyed, firm-voiced and credible. Even I wanted to believe him so much that I forgot that I had not yet been charged with anything.
When I finally got to the airport I went through the abasements of security, a ritual cleansing of the sort practiced at maximum security prisons: I removed my shoes. I took off my coat. I held out my arms. A guard in a rakish blue beret bestowed apologies like a rain of blessings as she wanded my armpits. "You have an underwire in your bra?" she asked. "You mind if I feel?"
It is hard to be responsive to such a prayer with any degree of grace. It is ceremonial, I know, a warding off of strip-search hell. "Not at all," I intoned, as though singing in Latin.
Another agent was going through my bags. He removed my nail clippers from the intimacy of my makeup pouch and discarded them in a large vat filled with hundreds of nail clippers. A proper sacrifice, I think. I imagine they will distribute them to the poor.
The agent put on rubber gloves and opened my thermos and swirled the coffee around. He removed the contents of my purse and spread it out. When he picked up my leatherbound diary and flipped slowly through the pages, a balloon of irreligiosity exploded at the back of my head, and I could feel the hair rise up, as it does sometimes, getting all militant despite my best prostrations of mousse.
"My diary?" I said as evenly as I could. "This is getting like the old Soviet Union."
"So, you visited the Soviet Union...?" he asked, a glinty new interest hardening what had been his prior languor.
Anyway, I finally got to where I was going. And on my way back from Philadelphia, I wasn't searched at all. They stopped the woman just in front of me, though, and there she stood, shoeless and coatless, with the tampons from her purse emptied upon the altar of a plastic tray. Once on the plane, she and I commiserated, and then the oddest thing happened. Others around us joined in about how invaded and humiliated they felt when searched. The conversation spread across the aisle, then to the seat in front, the row in back. It grew to about five rows of people, all angry at the overseers, all suspicious, all disgruntled and afraid. I was, I admit, strangely relieved to see that we were not only black or brown; we were men and women, white and Asian, young kids, old designer suits. There was a weird, sad kind of unity in our vulnerability, this helplessness of ours. But there was a scary emotional edge to the complaining, a kind of heresy that flickered through it too. What a baffled little coterie we were. Equal opportunity at last.
Anyway, dear editor, that, in short, is why this is not a column. I was having a really bad hair day.