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.
Rallonza and her family began talking about saving up to buy a house in Daly City. They figured they might be able to own their home by the time Don Michael's visa was granted in a few years.
But the events of Sept. 11, and the laws enacted in response to it, would force Rallonza to make a difficult decision: choose between her son and her job.
Rallonza looked into other jobs, such as lab work in phlebology, which is similar to the medical technology she studied in college. But she would have had to go back to school for almost a year, and still the pay would have only been $10 an hour.
So Rallonza filed her petition for citizenship on Dec. 5, 2001, a decision she made after several heart-wrenching phone conversations with her son.
"My son said, "Oh, Mom, it's useless. I will be 40 by the time I come. But if you don't file for citizenship, then you'll be jobless and then what will happen when they ask you to send an affidavit of support?'" Rallonza says. "It was a sacrifice for me because the first thing I think about is him, and I don't want to jeopardize anything for him to come here."
Usually a new American citizen will be reunited with family sooner than if she had remained a permanent resident. But because Rallonza is Filipina, once she becomes an American, Don Michael's visa petition will be moved to the end of an even longer State Department list than before.
"It's a historical thing," says immigration law professor Richard Boswell of Hastings College of the Law. "Filipinos served in World War II, and it used to be a U.S. colony. Therefore, you're going to have lots of Filipinos with ties to the U.S. The demand on immigrating here is going to be higher because of these natural ties. And because Congress sets up a quota the way they did, it creates problems with countries with long-standing ties like the Philippines."
But unlike immigrants from countries such as Mexico or Britain, which also have historical immigration links with the United States, most Filipinos have become U.S. citizens as soon as they have qualified. That has created a backlog for new citizens like Rallonza, who wish to bring family members to America.
So as a Filipina applying to become a U.S. citizen -- the only nationality affected in this way -- Rallonza will probably not be united with her son for another decade.
If Rallonza has time after her shift ends, she plans to walk down to the Delta Airlines terminal for a citizenship workshop put together by the airport labor union.
She will ask if it is possible to change the petition for Don Michael from under her name to her husband's -- he can remain a legal permanent resident -- to avoid the longer wait.
In addition to these workshops, the labor union also helped some screeners file the lawsuit against the Department of Transportation.
"The new law is very discriminatory because the screeners have nothing to do with what happened on 9/11," says Daz Lamapares, a union organizer. "The mere fact that noncitizens can serve in the U.S. armed forces makes it ridiculous that the screeners need to be U.S. citizens."
"We're not saying they are all entitled to have the job, but they should be eligible to apply," says Ben Wizner, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is heading the case. "The Supreme Court has held that the government can't discriminate based on "alienage.'"
A spokesman for the Department of Transportation declined to comment on the litigation.
Hastings professor Boswell says he suspects the citizenship requirement was added because of inaccurate notions about immigrants. "There is a real perception in this country, and it has been like this for a while, that a noncitizen is not loyal," Boswell says. "It's a very shortsighted way of dealing with a very serious problem of security."
Because of public outcry from groups like the airport union, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has authored a bill that would expedite the citizenship applications for airport screeners. But Feinstein's bill will not help those who have not been in the United States long enough to qualify for citizenship, and it will not affect baggage screeners in Rallonza's situation.
Rallonza says she hopes an amendment can be made to the law so immigrants can keep their jobs as airport screeners. "Right now they are not being fair to the immigrants because of Sept. 11," she says. "But the greatest sacrifice is on my son. He will have to wait. We would really like him to come."