Security screening at U.S. airports remains a huge problem, and Congress may be about to make it worse. The Senate two weeks ago unanimously passed an anti-terrorism bill that would make all airport baggage screeners federal employees. But House Republican leaders oppose the measure -- for good reason. It would create a new federal bureaucracy, without insuring more safety. But the Republican approach has a major loophole as well.
The biggest issue with respect to baggage screeners -- indeed, with all workers who have access to secure areas in the airport -- is that they haven't been properly screened themselves. Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration attempted to deal with this security gap by ordering that one million airport workers undergo security checks. But that will be difficult, if not impossible, for many current workers who are foreign-born.
National Public Radio reported last week, for example, that 87 percent of baggage screeners at Dulles Airport are non-U.S. citizens. As a frequent Dulles passenger, I've often wondered why none of the people screening my bags were American. And, even before Sept. 11, I worried that nearly all of them appeared to hail from countries that support terrorism. Most of the women wear Muslim garb, from simple head scarves and modest suits to the more elaborate chador that covers them head to foot. Although they speak English to passengers, the workers often speak to each other in their native tongue, making it impossible to know if they're even paying attention to the job at hand.
Every single one of these workers may be a law-abiding immigrant who loves America -- though I've been struck by the absence of pro-American symbols among these folks, even as their airport co-workers display red, white and blue ribbons, American flag label pins, and other patriotic garb. If I were a Muslim immigrant right now, I'd be anxious, in its time of need, to demonstrate solidarity with the country that provided me a better life and freedom.
But the real problem isn't how foreign-born security workers dress or whether they wave the American flag. The problem is that we know almost nothing about them -- or their American-born counterparts, for that matter. The company that hires Dulles security personnel, Atlanta-based Argenbright Security Inc., has been fined $1.5 million recently for failing to run background checks and for hiring convicted felons. But even companies that obey FAA guidelines may not be able to provide us the needed information.
It's extremely difficult to run a thorough background check on someone born overseas. We don't have the resources or the contacts to track down whether the information an immigrant supplies on a job application is complete and accurate. In some cases, we don't even know if the names they use are their own. According to news reports, many of the people being held in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on our nation are airport personnel who were illegally in the United States or who provided false information when they got their jobs.
It makes sense that in a job so fundamental to our security we hire only people whose identity, work history -- and, yes, loyalty -- we can trust.
The one advantage the Senate bill offers is that it will ensure that only U.S. citizens are hired. Federal law currently proscribes non-citizens from being hired by the government, unless the agency seeks a waiver.
But it's also more difficult to fire federal employees or change their duties as needed. Other countries, including Israel, with far more stringent security requirements in place at their airports, have moved away from using government workers in airport security. Government workers proved ineffective at stemming hijacking and other terrorist incidents in the 1970s and '80s, so many European countries and Israel have now moved to hire private contractors to do the job.
But if we're going to hire people through the private sector, it makes sense that we restrict these jobs. In the interests of national security, only U.S. citizens should be allowed to work at jobs in secure areas of U.S. airports. We may need to amend the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act if we want to restrict these jobs. The act currently forbids private employers from making citizenship a job requirement. House Republicans should make sure they plug this loophole in any bill they pass.