Harold Ezell, regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has played a key role in the formation of a new Orange-based group fighting illegal immigration from Mexico.
Although the group, called Americans for Border Control, makes no effort to publicize its ties to Ezell, most of its founding members are personal friends or church associates of Ezell. The controversial INS official, who had been trying to get such a group off the ground for more than a year, was instrumental in organizing the group and selecting its board of directors, according to several of its members and Ezell.
“Hal has certainly provided the inspiration for this,” said Americans for Border Control board member Stephen Fleishman, a Beverly Hills attorney. “His vocalization of the problem has produced an awareness; he’s piqued an interest in it nationwide.”
Other board members, most of whom know Ezell through church, said he asked them to serve as directors after giving them a nighttime tour of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ezell’s involvement violates no law or agency policy, said a spokesman for INS Commissioner Alan Nelson in Washington. Ezell has said he would not serve as an officer or board member of the organization.
“I don’t think there is any problem,” said Ezell, who spoke to the group at its $20-a-plate kickoff luncheon in Costa Mesa last month. “From early on in my appointment, I felt the same kind of grass-roots impact . . . that the women got with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) was needed to bring the problem of illegal immigration to the attention of the nation,” Ezell said. “I will continue to speak out on the need for the silent majority to get involved.”
Ezell, named INS western regional commissioner in 1983, has become the immigration service’s most visible figure, leading his agents on raids, conducting tours of the border for politicians and others and crisscrossing his territory with a single, dark message: The numbers of illegal aliens crossing the border constitute an invasion that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year and slowly destroying American society.
“We arrested 64,000 illegal aliens last month at the San Diego border crossing alone,” Ezell said. “They cost us hundreds of millions of dollars in medical, judicial and general relief. Those are non-reimbursable costs. Every American needs to be part of the solution. They need to know what is happening to the country, to their country.”
Latino community leaders, asked by The Times if they were aware of Ezell’s ties to Americans for Border Patrol, said they were not. But when told of Ezell’s role in forming the group, they called it inappropriate.
“It’s conduct unbecoming a high-level official,” said Amin David, president of Los Amigos, an Orange County immigrant-rights group. “It is above and beyond what one would perceive his role as immigration commissioner to be. This (group) is going to do a lot of damage to the serenity of the community; he is promoting fear, and solutions based on fear are unworkable.”
Earlier this year, David and other Latino leaders called for Ezell’s resignation because of what they termed his “xenophobic rhetoric.”
Dr. Isaac Cardenas, head of Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton, called Americans for Border Control “a support group for Ezell. It seems to be organized around his views--they’re trying to get support for his policies, which are not in the best interests of the Chicano community.”
About a year ago, Ezell said, he discussed the need for a citizens group with Roger Conner, president of FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), a Washington-based lobbying and policy-oriented organization.
Encouraged by FAIR
“I told him that I feel there is a need for a grass-roots movement. . . . FAIR is probably the best on the national scene, but what is there outside?” Ezell said. “I asked him if he would give direction if some guys became excited about this kind of thing, and he said he’d be glad to.”
Conner, reached in Washington, said that FAIR had encouraged the formation of Americans for Border Control, which “might be the only group of its kind in the country.” Other attempts at forming citizens groups for immigration reform have been local efforts that were short-lived, usually for a lack of leadership, he said. “But the people I met from (Americans for Border Control) have a healthy concern for the whole country--they have a broader vision of what a citizen of the United States ought to be concerned about,” Conner said.
Americans for Border Control’s brochure sounds much like an Ezell luncheon speech: it warns of the “appalling legacy which will be left our children and grandchildren” in the absence of stricter immigration enforcement. It also says that “special interests . . . control policy at the national level” and have “a monopoly on the media.”
“We have to alert the citizenry to the size of the invasion,” said Bill Butler, president of Americans for Border Control. The group has 40 dues-paying members so far, and is just beginning to arrange speaking engagements and raise money for a direct mail campaign, he said.
To stop the steady flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico, Ezell says, Congress must enact legislation that will beef up the Border Patrol and the INS and provide for sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens. Americans for Border Control was created to pressure Congress to pass legislation sponsored by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyoming) and Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-New Jersey), which would accomplish both of those things, Butler said. If that happened, he said, the organization probably would disband.
“We will bury Congress with letters,” said Butler, a professional fund-raiser for Christian groups. “If Congress does something about it, our work will be through.”
Ezell, 49, of Laguna Hills, said his friends’ involvement in Americans for Border Control should come as no surprise, since the need for immigration reform is just about the only thing he talks about.
“If you’re a tunnel vision kind of guy like me, who can only see the one road that you’re running on, then all you talk about is control of the borders, whether you’re talking to your friends or the people you meet,” he said.
“My part is to expose as many people . . . as I can to the problem. What they do with that exposure is their responsibility.”
Sandy Arterburn, who knew Ezell when both were members of South Coast Community Church in Irvine, said she changed her mind about illegal immigration after Ezell gave her and several other prospective group members a tour of the border last year.
‘Like a War Down There’
“I was shocked,” said Arterburn, president of a Laguna Beach company that manufactures swim wear with the help of documented Cambodian refugees, she said. “I used to think that everyone should be able to live in the United States. But it’s like war down there on the border. They run like crazy into our country, and then we run around trying to catch them. After we saw how bad it really was, we decided to form (Americans for Border Control), and Hal asked me to be on the board.”
Phil Olsen, who, like Ezell, was an elder at South Coast Community Church, said he had been interested in the immigration problem for some time when he asked Ezell if he could take the border tour. As was the case with Arterburn, the tour convinced Olsen, president of an Irvine real estate company and brother of former Los Angeles Rams football player Merlin Olsen, that something had to be done.
“I asked him if there was something I could do, and he said, “Here’s an opportunity if you’d like to be involved,’ ” Olsen said. “He feels very strongly about the fact that the private citizenry needs to raise up a voice that can help people to understand the problem.”
Olsen said he had told the other board members that the group needs to be “a representative cross section of society. We need women and Mexicans represented. We need to be able to say that there is no special-interest group here. Yes, there are a number of Hal’s friends and a number of Christians, but that is not where we are coming from.”
The board is still being filled out, Olsen said, and it is unfair to characterize the group as strictly friends of Harold Ezell. “Someone has to start the ball rolling,” Olsen said. “We have to make the public aware of the problem, and until you do that, it’s difficult to see the support.”
Heard Commissioner Talk
Thomas Steele, vice president of Americans for Border Control, also is an old friend of Ezell. As co-owner of Creative Communications Associates in Orange, Steele has helped Ezell’s wife, Lee, develop and produce a five-minute weekly Christian radio program, and he has booked Harold Ezell “for a number of things,” he said.
Although he has known Ezell for more than five years, Steele said that his interest in immigration was sparked when he heard the commissioner speak on the topic at a Rotary Club meeting a year and a half ago. He went on the same border tour as Arterburn, Olsen, Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm and others.
Steele, who with Butler does most of the day-to-day work for the group, says Ezell’s involvement is not extensive. Other than supplying the group with information and the names of some prospective board members, “he’s been virtually no help at all,” he said.
Of the six board members, only Michael Sokolski, a retired Santa Ana businessman, has had little contact with Ezell. He, too, was asked to serve after he was given a tour of the border. An ethnic Pole who immigrated from the Soviet Union, Sokolski said he was once was a member of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based lobbying group.