The Price of Citizenship

A quirk in immigration laws, and tougher security rules, demand a terrible choice from Filipino baggage screeners at SFO: their jobs or their families

It is a stunningly sunny afternoon in late January, and a Secret Service agent wearing all black waits impatiently as his bags are checked in at the American Airlines terminal. As his luggage passes through an X-ray scanner called a CTX machine, one of his suitcases sets off a warning signal. Airport screeners swiftly lift the offending metal case onto a table for a search.

Inspection duties are handed over to Aurora Rallonza, a petite Filipina who has worked as a baggage screener at SFO for five years. As the Secret Service agent and an airline security manager hover above her, she swipes a cotton pad over the handles of the case to test for explosive residue.

Inside the case is a panic alarm to be used in case the agent feels threatened, consisting of jumbled wires and electronic devices. Rallonza takes all the pieces out to scrutinize them, verifying each component with a checklist the Secret Service agent had filed with the airline. Satisfied the suitcase is not a threat, Rallonza puts everything back, and a baggage handler sets the case on a cart.

As the agent moves on to additional security checkpoints, Rallonza whispers to a co-worker, "Do you know if he is flying, or is he just checking us?"

"He is flying," her co-worker responds.

Rallonza, like many noncitizens working as airport baggage screeners, is nervous about retaining her job. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, baggage screeners, a crucial line of defense against security threats, have been particularly scrutinized by Washington. Congress passed a law in November 2001 to bolster airport security, including more stringent requirements for baggage screeners, such as education and training standards.

Under that law, baggage screeners must also be United States citizens, a controversial measure that will directly affect people like Rallonza and the approximately 450 noncitizen screeners at SFO. The law will create a special dilemma for Filipino workers, who make up about 80 percent of baggage screeners at SFO.

Some screeners have chosen to publicly fight the new law, saying it unconstitutionally discriminates against them as immigrants. They have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation.

Though Rallonza thinks the citizenship requirement is unfair, the cheery mother of three has chosen to stay out of the lawsuit because she, like many others at SFO, is in an unusually delicate immigration situation.

Because of a wrinkle in State Department procedures that applies only to Filipinos, if Rallonza becomes a U.S. citizen, she will have to wait longer to be reunited with her eldest son, who still lives in the Philippines. As a permanent resident, Rallonza might have been able to bring her son to the U.S. on an immigration visa in a few years, perhaps by 2005. But becoming a U.S. citizen will prevent Rallonza from reuniting with him until about 2012. They have been separated since 1996.

"The Philippines is the only case where, if you become a U.S. citizen, it takes longer to bring over an unmarried son or daughter than if you had stayed a legal immigrant," says Kevin Pimentel, an attorney with the International Institute of San Francisco. "It's hugely problematic because some Filipino sons and daughters don't get married just so they can remain eligible [to immigrate]. People base their lives on these [immigration visa] numbers. It has a dramatic effect."

Rallonza came to the United States in 1996 after waiting 18 years for her own immigration visa. Her sister, who moved to the U.S. with her American husband some years before, had petitioned for Rallonza and her family in 1977, when Rallonza was 26. Back then, Rallonza had only one son, 2-year-old Don Michael, whose name was taken from the Godfather movies.

Rallonza had graduated from college in 1972 with a degree in medical technology, but there were no jobs in the Philippines.

"I wanted to come here and live a better life for my family," she says.

But the backlog of Filipinos hoping to immigrate to America was great, and it took nearly two decades for Rallonza and her family to obtain a visa. By that time, Rallonza had given birth to two more children, and Don Michael had just turned 23 -- two years too old to be carried by his mother's visa.

The family would either have to forgo a life in America or temporarily split up.

Rallonza said she thought about her options for a long time, and though it was difficult to leave Don Michael behind, Rallonza promised to send for him as soon as she could. The State Department sets up quotas for family sponsorship based on citizenship and family relationship, and Don Michael had a good chance of getting an immigration visa in about eight years. He could live with an aunt in Quezon City until then.

When Rallonza and the rest of her family arrived in America in 1997, they settled in Daly City. Rallonza and her husband began looking for work.

Rallonza's husband got a job at a car rental company at SFO; Rallonza landed a baggage screener job. When she started in February 1997, she was paid $5.25 an hour. Through promotions and raises, Rallonza now makes $15 an hour.

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