INS's Ezell--He's Hard to Pigeonhole

In the summer of 1987, an East Los Angeles priest led 200 parishioners on a crusade to the Laguna Hills home of Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In surroundings as foreign to their own living conditions as a distant planet, the demonstrators sang hymns and prayed for 2 hours that they might have a grace period to prevent their families from being divided by deportation. They chose Ezell's home for their demonstration because over the past few years he has come to symbolize--more than any other individual--the hard-line treatment of illegal aliens.

He wasn't there that day. "We were notified ahead of time that they were coming," says Ezell's wife, Lee, "so I left notes in our neighbors' mailboxes about what was going to happen, and then I took him to the mall."

It may have been one of the few times in his life that Harold Ezell deliberately avoided a confrontation.

Ezell probably makes the newspapers more frequently than any other public official in Orange County--almost always negatively. Hardly a month passes that someone isn't trying to get him fired, usually after published quotes similar to his recent charge that the reports of death threats to Central American political refugees being given sanctuary in Southland churches are "part of an orchestrated PR campaign." The outrage after that one was palpable. One of the milder comments came from one church leader who called his remarks "the most insensitive response I could imagine from anyone."

Admittedly, hostility goes with Ezell's job territory, but he also manages to help it along, often quite creatively. He can't do anything about the fact that he was the first political appointee in this job in two decades or that he came to it after 11 years as an executive of Wienerschnitzel International, both looked on by his opponents with derision as qualifications for the job he now holds. But his working style of meeting controversy frontally--and often with painful candor--is both disarming and distressing, enough so that his boss in Washington admitted that he found some of Ezell's public statements "too strong" and accordingly directed him to "show better care in choosing his words."

But that's like telling Tommy Lasorda to play it cool. One of Ezell's more fascinating--and frequently infuriating--attributes is that he's almost impossible to pigeonhole. One week he is conducting busloads of Kiwanians on tours of the border area and preaching hard-line enforcement, and the next week he's out putting on shows to get aliens to sign up for amnesty. He's a constantly moving target, but unlike many public officials who have to deal with a frequently hostile image, he never ducks a confrontation, is never hard to find, and never avoids expressing an opinion.

"It sets my teeth on edge," he said, "whenever I hear a public official say, 'No comment.' "

He showed up at an Irvine restaurant with his warm and attractive wife en route to a ceremony at the Crystal Cathedral at which Religious Heritage of America would honor the Ezells with its California Community Award for "demonstrating the highest ideals of America's religious heritage."

He doesn't fit the hard-liner image very snugly. He's chunky with a generous head of curly hair, an almost cherubic face, rimless eyeglasses and a manner of speaking that vacillates between diffidence, passion and humor, all coated with a heavy layer of self-assurance.

We talked a few days after Ezell was in the headlines once again because one of his agents had gone into a Catholic church in Orange during Mass to capture two illegal aliens.

Ezell sighed. "My agent was Hispanic and Catholic. He was also very young. He had his hands on both of them when they hit the door of the church. He followed them inside and asked them to step outside with him when they said they had no papers. It was all over in less than 60 seconds, and he still insists that no Mass was going on. I was at a staff meeting, and I knew as soon as I got the call it was going to hit the fan.

"This hasn't happened before, and I don't expect it to happen again. The inexperience on the part of the agent contributed to it, but it also made me realize that I needed specific guidelines for every situation. And that will be done."

(The guidelines--including tough restrictions on entering churches--were announced earlier this week.)

Ezell says the thing that bothers him most in the aftermath of flaps like that one is the personal vituperation directed at him. "The worst part of this job," he says, "is to be called a racist. It's the cheapest way people can tear down what you're doing. My father was a minister at Harbor Christian Center in Wilmington for 50 years, and my brother is the pastor there now. My dad would have approved of what I'm doing. He never asked for green cards and his church was 80% Hispanic, but he also never encouraged the breaking of the law. I grew up in Wilmington, and in that environment, you can't have a racist bone in your body or feelings against other religions. I just wish I'd taken Spanish instead of Latin in school."

Ezell--who attended junior college in Wilmington and Southern California College in Costa Mesa--had a long and highly successful business career before joining the INS, much of it in real estate development and site acquisition. After more than a decade as vice president and a board member of Wienerschnitzel, he ran a management-consultant firm for small businesses for 3 years before U.S. Atty. Gen. William French Smith appointed him INS western commissioner in 1983.

Lee Ezell's background couldn't have been more different.

The fifth child of alcoholic parents "who told me I wasn't wanted," Lee grew up in Philadelphia and moved with her mother and two sisters to San Francisco when Lee was 17. A few months after she took her first job, she was raped and became pregnant. "My mother kicked me out, and I found a couple in Los Angeles who took me in and signed me up with the adoption guild. I was never permitted to see or hold my child after she was born. I didn't know then it would be the only child I'd ever have."

Fundamental Christian religion has been a bulwark in the lives of both Lee and Harold Ezell--Lee because it gave her the strength to survive, and Harold because it was an integral part of his life from birth. Religion also brought them together. Lee took a job as a secretary for a Bible-teaching conference in Florida that was one of Harold's clients. By that time, Ezell was twice a widower. His first wife died at 30, leaving him two daughters, and his second wife died after 6 years of marriage. Harold and Lee were married in 1973; on Oct. 28, they will celebrate their 15th anniversary.

Lee had never before told her story to anyone except the couple who befriended her. But before they were married, she told Harold, and "it made no difference to him," Lee says. "But we made a big mistake by not telling Hal's daughters, who were then 10 and 13 and who very soon felt as if they were my girls."

It seemed then that there was no reason for them to know, but 3 years ago Lee got a phone call from her aged benefactor in Los Angeles. Lee's daughter was trying to find her mother and had somehow tracked down the couple who had taken in Lee. The woman gave Lee the phone number of her daughter in Michigan, and after some soul searching--"I felt Hal's girls were mine, and I wanted my daughter to feel the same way toward the people who were raising her"--Lee called and found out she was a grandmother.

"My two girls at home felt betrayed when we told them. They'd already lost two mothers, and now they felt they were going to lose me." But it didn't turn out that way. Lee had a joyous reunion with her daughter and grandchild, and now the whole family is an integral and happy unit. Lee tells this story in a book she has written (for Bantam) called "The Missing Piece." She also uses it on the lecture platform and in the seminars she has been teaching across the country for the past 9 years, mostly on women's problems.

The 51-year-old Ezell sums it up this way: "It's been hard, frequently discouraging, and has probably aged me, but I wouldn't trade it. And I still get more letters supporting than opposing me. The best part of the job is that I believe I'm doing a good thing for my country. The borders must be controlled for the national security of the nation--just like your front door.

"There were 600,000 people taken in legally last year, and if we don't control the illegal entries, the public will want to stop all immigration. I don't want to see that happen. My grandmother immigrated from England, and I wouldn't be here today if there weren't legal immigration."

He also makes no secret of his strongly partisan political views. While his wife elbowed him in the ribs, he praised George Bush lavishly and took repeated shots at Michael S. Dukakis. He has no illusions about what a Democratic victory would mean to him personally.

"If the Duke gets in," he says matter-of-factly, "I'm on the hit list right off."

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