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The Myth of Fingerprints

Romulo S. Raval's hands served him well for 71 years. As a 12-year-old in the Philippines during World War II, he worked as a messenger, delivering secret notes crumpled in his fists to guerrillas fighting the invading Japanese army in the mountains. Once, he even guarded war prisoners, gripping the barrel of a Springfield rifle with trembling fingers.

Decades later, Raval became the proud patriarch of a large immigrant family in the United States, supporting his wife and eight children. He worked at a fish cannery in Alaska, sorting mail in Oakland and selling imported children's clothing for a time.

Most recently, until last December, Raval pushed a wheelchair through concourses at San Francisco's international airport, taking infirm or elderly passengers to their gates. That was when Raval's worn hands -- more accurately, his fingertips -- turned into a liability.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the federal government ordered most employees of the nation's airports to undergo a security check. The unprecedented checks presented a massive logistical challenge. At San Francisco alone, more than 12,000 persons were fingerprinted for screening by the FBI.

For Raval and another wheelchair agent, 75-year-old Jesus Salvador, the fingerprinting cost them their livelihoods.

No one suspects the three workers of being al Qaeda operatives or potential terrorists. Salvador is a U.S. citizen, while Raval was a legal U.S. resident at the time. Unlike security screeners who are now required to be federally trained employees and U.S. citizens -- a policy that led to the well-publicized dismissals of non-citizen screeners -- wheelchair agents like Raval need only working permits and clean records.

Raval and Salvador's fingerprints, read by state-of-the-art digital machines, came back "unclassifiable." The FBI said lifetimes of manual labor or old age often erode the whorls of ridges that make up fingerprints.

"Absolutely, it could be a result of age," said Steve Fischer, spokesman at the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services. "In fact, it happens quite frequently."

The men were not fired right away, but the "unclassifiable" fingerprints triggered a mandatory 10-year background check, in which they had to account for whereabouts and employment. Ravel had gone back to the Philippines to work as a customs official in the 1980s, returning to the United States in 1997. Both workers scrambled to obtain documentation from the Philippines' famously disorganized bureaucracy before the Dec. 22 deadline.

Raval was fired Dec. 23. On his termination notice, his supervisor scrawled: "Did not Pass Security Requirement." Raval charges he was unjustly fired, saying that on Dec. 22 he provided records from the U.S. consulate in the Philippines and a letter from his hometown lawyer to prove that during a six-month employment gap in 1997 he was arranging for a U.S. visa to join his family.

"Am I a terrorist? I have met all the requirements," Raval said.

Salvador complied Jan. 9, after he already was fired, according to Daz Lamparas, a representative in the Service Employees International Union, where Raval was a shop steward.

"It's not a question of national security," Lamparas said. "Management is using this new policy of a background check to fire people they don't like," because of old age or union membership.

Both men are seeking arbitration for reinstatement with full back pay, Lamparas said. Sara Jackson, spokeswoman in Atlanta for the men's former employer, Argenbright Securities, said the company's lawyer had spoken to the union representative to reach a deal.

Lamparas said the Argenbright lawyers are discussing a monetary settlement, but have said the men can't be placed back in their jobs because Argenbright no longer functions at the airport.

Mike McCarron, San Francisco airport spokesman, said that what happened to Raval and Salvador was unusual. Out of the roughly 12,000 persons fingerprinted, a total of 65 workers had unclassifiable fingerprints. McCarron could not say how many lost jobs. But he said at least 20 were "cleared" and presumably already were working.

Raval now spends his mornings in the tidy home he shares with his son's family in Daly City, a town bordering San Francisco. On a recent morning, he has just said the rosary, and its multi-colored strands are in a zip-loc bag on the coffee table in front of him, next to a vial of holy water.

When he hears faded fingerprints may have cost him his job, he sighs and looks at his smooth, shiny-pink fingertips. "Is it my fault that my fingerprint could not be read?" he asked. Raval is especially frustrated because he only planned on working until February, when he could have retired with full Social Security and Medicare benefits. "I should be enjoying life already," he said.

Raval is still fighting for his job, and is now a U.S. citizen, having been sworn in March 17. He is proud that his eight children are citizens, and all except one who is infirm are working professionals, including dentists, nurses and businesspeople. One of his 18 grandchildren, 22-year-old Jennifer Raval, helps him on his case. If he fails to win his job back, Raval said, he may be forced for the first time to accept financial help from his children.

"Whether I win or lose," he said, "I will be OK. What worries me are all the immigrants this is happening to who don't have high school diplomas and don't know the meaning of the word discrimination."

PNS Associate Editor Marcelo Ballve (ballve@hotmail.com) is a former Associated Press reporter in Brazil and the Caribbean.

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