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Judge says banning non-citizens as baggage screeners unconstitutional

By Gary Gentile The Associated Press
Saturday November 16, 2002

LOS ANGELES — A federal judge issued a sweeping ban Friday on a section of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act that barred non-citizens from being airport security screeners. 

In a ruling that will apply to airports nationwide, U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi issued a preliminary injunction against enforcing a portion of the security act ruling that it was unconstitutional. 

The injunction will remain in place until trial in a civil rights lawsuit brought by nine plaintiffs at Los Angeles and San Francisco International Airports. No trial date has been set. 

Takasugi denied the federal government’s request to delay a ruling. 

The ruling will affect as many as 8,000 airport screeners, most of whom already have lost their jobs, said Ben Wizner, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which brought the case. The ruling will allow them to reapply for jobs that became federal positions following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

ACLU lawyers also said they hoped the judge’s decision would convince Congress to pass an amendment now before the U.S. Senate that would allow U.S. nationals to hold airport security screening jobs. One of the plaintiffs is from American Samoa, who had been barred from applying as a baggage screener. 

Takasugi’s three-page ruling said the plaintiffs had “sufficiently alleged a constitutional deprivation to warrant a finding of irreparable harm.” 

The judge said issuing the injunction would merely delay implementing the new statute, while denying it could cost plaintiffs jobs. 

“As such, it is clear that the balance of hardships tips decidedly in plaintiffs’ favor.” 

He also said issuing the injunction would serve the public interest. 

U.S. Justice Department lawyer Elizabeth Shapiro declined to comment on the ruling. 

She said it was not clear that the injunction would apply nationwide. 

The ACLU’s Wizner, however, said he interpreted the ruling as applying to those estimated 8,000 workers already effected by the act nationwide and any non-citizens who want to apply for a job. 

The ruling simply states that the injunction bars enforcement of the citizenship requirement. 

Alba Reyes, a plaintiff in the action, said she was pleased by the ruling. Reyes, 24, of the Hollywood area, is from El Salvador. She was fired from her screening job at Los Angeles International Airport in February after failing a screening test, but not because she was a non-citizen. 

Reyes who had applied for citizenship before her firing and has since become a citizen, said she has reapplied from her job and is now on a waiting list. 

“There’s a lot of hard working people that have been working for years and obviously they’re not the problem,” she said of fellow screeners who had been considered a security threat. “It was unfair. They were qualified and they deserve a better job.”