Over the past 16 months, legitimate concerns about national security have all too often masked insulting assumptions about the motives of foreign citizens. The most recent example was evident last week in Salem, when officials responsible for training and certifying state and local police trotted out House Bill 2239.
Worried that a crafty al Qaeda agent might weasel his way into a job as an emergency medical dispatcher and then wreak havoc from within, Oregon's Department of Public Safety Standards and Training proposed requiring that all public-safety employees in Oregon be U.S. citizens.
Oregon law already mandates that all police, probation, corrections and parole officers be U.S. citizens before they are certified by the state. The public-safety department's plan would add 911 operators and dispatchers to this list.
"There's an incredible amount of public trust in these people," training division director Eriks Gabliks told the Oregon House Committee on General Government. "In a 911 center, a person will have access to all types of information on the public-safety response to an event."
According to the 2000 Census, Oregon is home to 290,000 foreign-born residents. Of those, only about 97,000 are naturalized U.S. citizens. Although the rest aren't technically citizens, they are legal residents. They pay taxes, enjoy the same civil rights as native Oregonians and, indeed, sometimes work in non-sworn public-safety posts.
In her testimony against the bill, Mary Botkin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, noted that foreign-born residents are often used as interpreters in 9-1-1 posts. She struggled to see why they pose a danger. "I guess my paranoia just doesn't stretch out that far," she says.
It certainly doesn't stretch as far as the Pentagon, either: More than 30,000 non-citizens have been on active military duty since the Sept. 11 attacks. The U.S. Army is comfortable deploying these men and women in the war against terrorism, but the Oregon police academy doesn't think they're fit to answer the phones at the local 911 center.
Gabliks insists that the bill was just a "housekeeping" measure that simply got out of hand. If it causes too much of a stir, he says, the bill will probably be dropped. "This went a different direction than we intended."
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